No. 3 (Nov. 1997)
Some Thoughts on "Asian Social Charter"
--beyond a " Social Clause Strategy" towards a "Social Charter Strategy"--
In this article I would like to present some personal thoughts which gradually crystallized inside my head as I took part in a series of international NGO conferences on "Trade and workers rights", held in a variety of locations over the period from two years ago until last year.
1. What is a "Social Clause Strategy"?
Firstly I need to explain what I mean by the term "Social Clause Strategy". To sum it up in my own words: the argument assumes a sense of danger in that although trade liberalization should not be rejected per se, trade needs to be "fair"--if unfair trade spreads, infringements of workers'rights also become more widespread, the ordered structure of world trade is dragged into a downward spiral, and eventually serious confrontations arise between the various countries. To ensure that trade is fair, labor unions therefore devise strategies for making the labor standards which should be upheld by any country participating in and aiming to receive benefit from world trade into clear "Social Clauses" and incorporating them into the structure and rules of world trade organizations; put another way, countries that do not uphold these "Social Clauses" should be excluded from world trade, i.e. made the subject of economic sanctions. The ILO core conventions normally seen as being central to the issue, such as those relating to the right of association, right to collective bargaining, forced labor, child labor, discrimination in employment, etc. are currently regarded as "Social Clauses" which should be upheld.
2. Evaluating the "Social Clause Strategy"
I first learned of this "Social Clause Strategy" in the latter half of the 1980s. GATT's Uruguay Round discussions began in 1986, and the process of reaching settlements aimed at creating the WTO was very difficult. The "Social Clause Strategy" became one of the focal points of the debate. When I first came across the strategy, I felt strongly that the international labor movement should promote this strategy. If unfair trade practices were to spread, then "downward" trends in international competition would probably undermine the "common rules"--each country's labor standards for industrial society, which had been won through many years of struggle in countries with an advanced union movement-- and would certainly do little for the progress of human society either. Such was my first impression.
However, as I came into contact with members of different Asian unions and NGOs at various international meetings, I came to realize that there were quite firmly rooted reservations and opposition to this "Social Clause Strategy" even amongst pro-labor people in the south. Initially I thought that the opposition must have come from unions leaning towards the dictatorial governments of developing countries which give priority to development, in other words from "obedient" unions and the like, but this was not necessarily true. There were for example counterarguments from Indian unions, and counterarguments and reservations from NGO members and labor lawyers engaged in progressive work locally. I came to see that this was a problem which could not be ignored. It meant that even if the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) decided at its World Congresses to promote the "Social Clause Strategy", there would be affiliated national centers and unions which opposed it and questions on how to deal with this.
3. Some points of the counterarguments
We next need to examine what the counterarguments consist of: my interpretation is as follows. Firstly, those arguing against the "Social Clause Strategy" also accept that trade liberalization and economic globalization harbor potential threats to workers' rights. On that point they agree with those promoting it. However, if we zoom in on the questions of how to handle and deal with this problem, some differences become apparent. The first is that they do not see the current economic globalization as a "natural phenomenon" Their attention is directed towards the institutional "actors" who are advancing economic globalization, and the role of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. These cannot be ignored, and moreover one needs to consider the movements of the multinational corporations behind them. So trying to apply sanctions to a country without casting any light on the movements of these actors or questioning their responsibilities is surely missing the point.
Secondly, on a related matter, there is resentment and suspicion that the industrialized nations trying to gain acceptance for the "Social Clause" are applying double standards. As one Indian labor lawyer remarked, even as the industrialized nations say "observe the rights of labor unions", they are at the same time pushing forward with structural adjustments via international financial institutions, and thereby aiming to abolish the mechanisms protecting workers which have been won by unions in the past, such as restrictive rules on redundancy, etc. In other words, is it not the case that there is a consistent pattern here? And thirdly, whilst the "Social Clause Strategy" calls for sanctions, doubts are expressed as to the effect on workers if these are applied, considering serious issues such as the turmoil in the national economy and the unemployment problems which would ensue. So is it not rather a question of how to create employment given the current serious unemployment situation? Would it not then be better to adopt a strategy focused on assistance rather than economic sanctions? Those opposing the "Social Clause Strategy" use the type of arguments summarized above.
Seen in this way, I think it is obvious that the arguments against the "Social Clause Strategy" do include points which need to be aired and addressed. Maybe what is needed now is a search for new strategies for the union movement, capable of surmounting the opposing views inside the movement. I believe this to be the case.
4. Learning from the post-war history of the labor and socialist movements
When one examines the theme of trade and workers' rights one finds a long history of arguments stretching back to the time of the First World War, even inside the union movement. Yet despite this long history, it is fair to say that achieving the "Social Clause Strategy" turned out to be not as easy as had been hoped. I believe that we need to bear this in mind when considering policies for the future.
In this I feel it is important to learn from the experiences gained by the international labor and other social movements when tackling economic regional integration after the war. The European Community (EC) is well known for regional unification starting early in the post-war period. A recent example is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The basic stance adopted by the ICFTU towards the EC was that "economic integration" should be accompanied by "social integration", and claimed that establishing and respecting the social rights of the people of different nations, the rights of the workers, should be the condition for social integration. This developed into the European Social Charter. In NAFTA's case the emphasis was placed on workers' rights and environmental issues, and eventually these became two side agreements. One could also say that these were test cases where "Social Clauses" were incorporated to a certain extent in the process of regional economic integration. I think that based on these experiences we can make the following three points.
Firstly, the core of systematized "Social Clauses" is in effect "procedural rights", and it was agreed that it was natural for "substantive rights" such as wage levels to vary from country to country matching the state of the local economy. Secondly, we cannot expect too much from the idea of protecting workers' rights through pressure from above, or from supra-national institutions. Of course the European Social Charter is not without significance, but it was not easy to break through the walls of national sovereignty. In NAFTA's case side agreements were formed following the principle that each country should implement its own national laws. This meant that it was impossible to place too great hopes on pressure from above, or from a supra-national institution. Thirdly, there are nevertheless aspects of systematized social clauses that the union and socialist movements can use. A Mexican activist opposing NAFTA has commented on the possibilities of using the side agreements mentioned above, and an NGO activist close to the Korean Democratic Workers Union has said that whilst remaining aware of the risks inherent in the "Social Clause Strategy", there are still some aspects which can be exploited. I believe these comments should not be ignored.
5. The Concept of a "Social Charter Strategy"
I would like to end by discussing what I mean by the shift from a "Social Clause Strategy" towards a "Social Charter Strategy". I believe that it is meaningful that the union movement has promoted the "Social Clause Strategy." Above all, this is because it has raised awareness of questions such as what a worker's inalienable rights are, and how they currently stand in each country. Discussion of the "Social Clause Strategy" inevitably starts from situation reports and exchanges of views prompted by this awareness. I think this is very meaningful per se.
The problem is rather whether the "Social Clause Strategy" is sufficient or appropriate for addressing the problems currently encountered by workers throughout the world. I believe that therein lies its meaning as well as its limitations. In the declaration of the Workers' Forum held in Kathmandu in March last year, a variety of issues were addressed which demanded a much wider range of countermeasures than the clauses focused on by a "Social Clause Strategy." Relating to the matter, it should be noted that an ILO Working Party on the Social Dimensions of Liberalization of International Trade already reported at the end of the year before last that all its members, including the representatives of labor unions, had agreed that there was no hope of a solution coming from a legalistic approach armed with economic sanctions, particularly with regard to child labor.
I would like to propose that what is needed is a "Social Charter Strategy" from below, going beyond the "Social Clause Strategy." This strategy would aim at uniting the various civil movements around the world that are resisting the numerous difficulties brought about by economic globalization. It has also been pointed out that there are limits to how long NGO movements can persevere, but even so there are NGOs performing important actions on so-called "single issues". What is required is for these diverse NGO movements and union movements to join together and create a coalition from beneath. The "Social Charter for Democratic Development" adopted Asia & Pacific Regional Organization of ICFTU (ICFTU-APRO) at the executive committee on 24 August 1994 did not confine itself to addressing the problems dealt with in the "Social Clause Strategy" but rather with numerous other problems. Also, it does not advocate the "use of economic sanctions" approach. It also clearly states its position of "working together with NGOs to promote the Social Charter". I think the fact that APRO adopted this document should be received positively. However, in case you think that the "Social Charter Strategy" I have referred to has been fully covered by this document, this is not the case. There are further problems which need to be discussed, and also I think there are some issues where we need to widen our perspective. I therefore believe that the experience and knowledge of the many people working for the rights of workers and human rights should be input into the creation of this "Social Charter", without being restricted by past developments.
This article is an abridged version of a presentation given at the First Symposium on Monitoring Transnational Corporations in Asia, 7 December 1996.
A Supplementary Remark
The basic outline of my idea presented in the above paper is the same as my current conception of the "Social Clause" debate. However, having had the opportunity to talk with Japanese trade union leaders on the topic and to read some papers presented at the 'Asian Regional Workshop on Promoting Workers' Rights in a Global Economy: Local, Regional & International Instruments & Initiatives,'(18-24 October, 1977/Philippines) I want to add a supplementary note.
There is still deep-rooted opposition to and distrust of what I call the "Social Clause Strategy" among trade unions and NGOs mainly in the South. The appropriateness of such a strategy will continue to be debated, but I do not expect the opposing positions to be overcome in the near future. What is meaningful at the moment must be to enrich and strengthen what I call the "Social Clause Strategy" Aside from various positions towards the 'Social Clause Strategy', we should ask ourselves what we can do in our own countries for promoting workers' rights through international solidarity.
Based on our experiences in Japan, I want to mention the following points :
1) Generally speaking, the perspective of Japanese enterprise-based union leaders has tended to be confined to the interests of regular employees in their own enterprises. In most cases, temporary and part-time workers in Japan have not been targeted to be organized. Therefore, it is no wonder that most of the union leaders of big Japanese Multinational Corporations(MNCs) have not tried to take care of the local workers employed by their overseas subsidiary companies, while they have often visited overseas plants to see their Japanese union members working there. This is something we should try to change from the Japanese side.
2) As a first step to change such an attitude, I would like to propose that the Japanese trade unionists of the MNCs should honestly respond and organize assistance to the urgent relief requests from foreign trade unionists and/or NGOs involved in disputes of violation of workers' rights by the Japanese MNCs overseas. The enterprise-based union in Japan usually has a stable channel to their top management through which they can theoretically influence management decisions, if they are independent of the management. I know that the realities are not so easy. Some of the union leaders are too close to the management and not willing to listen to the relief appeals from the foreign working people, but without challenging to change such attitudes we cannot hope that a "Social Charter Strategy" could be implemented from below. This is the reason why we want to have fully -evidenced and concrete information about the violation of workers' rights by the Japanese MNCs. Our Center, CTLS, will try to circulate such information among the people in Japan.
3) In the past ten years or so, there have been several cases where a kind of small ad hoc coalition of militant small trade unions, religious groups and volunteer citizen groups have been active in responding to such urgent relief calls from foreign working people. They have done a good publicizing job and sometimes succeeded in influencing the leadership of mainstream trade unions. But recent experiences in Japan show that the International Trade Secretariats(ITS) such as the IMF, IUF etc. may have an important influence on Japanese enterprise-based unions through ITS- affiliated Japanese Industrial Unions. In addition to this, I should mention that the biggest Japanese national center (Rengo) seems to have decided that their position should be to respond positively when they receive a formal request from foreign trade union national centers such as the AFL-CIO. The point I want to make in this context is this: if we want to implement a "Social Charter Strategy" from below, we should try to extend and strengthen the relationships between conscientious union leaders of Industrial Unions, National Centers, active trade unionists and NGO people. Our Center CTLS wants to make some contribution for building such a bridge.
4) So far, the international solidarity activities in Japan have tended to be reactive and passive in coping with the cases of violation of workers' rights at Japanese MNCs operating abroad. On the other hand, as described in Hugh Williamson's book (Coping with the Miracle--Japan's Trade Unions Explore New International Relations, a Japanese version of which will be published in November this year.), Rengo has been moving towards establishing an international solidarity network mainly through an invitation program. In some sense, this can be regarded as a very active move. But we must examine what kind of activities are really efficient and necessary if we want to prevent the violation of workers' rights by Japanese MNCs. Having read the ambitious paper "The Emergence of Corporate Rule and What to Do About It" by Tony Clarke, I expect that there must be many things we can learn from the discussions and experiences in North America and Europe where regional integration has progressed further than in Asia. By the way, the Second Symposium on Monitoring Transnational Corporations in Asia is going to be held in Tokyo at the end of November 1997, the record of which will be reported in the next issue of our Bulletin.
Center for Transnational Labor Studies
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