Labor and environmental groups were the most vocal and influential of all the protesters on the streets of Seattle last week. But were they pursuing only their own protectionist interests or were they also, as they claimed, representing the cause of the defenseless workers and degraded environment in the developing world? To someone watching their strident advocacy from the perspective of the developing countries, the answer seemed to be clear: They were motivated more by their own self-interest than by altruistic or moral feelings toward the poor.
Take the question of labor standards. The real issue is not the observance of core standards, such as freedom of association, formation of trade unions, collective bargaining and abolition of child or forced labor. The issue is whether the WTO is the right forum and whether the trade rules are the right instrument to pursue objectives that are basically social, cultural and political. Developing countries with vibrant and vocal democracies, such as India, already cherish freedom of expression, collective bargaining and the like as inviolable rights, and they do not need to be told to pursue these objectives through the trade rules of the WTO.
These countries already adhere to labor's core standards--not because of any linkage to trade or investment, but because of their governments' conviction that these are basic rights to be guaranteed in a well-functioning democracy.
Those who want to link labor standards to the trade rules of the WTO have an ulterior motive, revealed time and again by the protesters themselves. The labor organizations of the United States and Europe have complained that the liberalization of trade and investment regimes will lure investment away from wealthy nations to countries where wages are low. But low wages, the result of lower levels of national income, are the primary comparative advantage developing countries have to attract investment and create jobs. This advantage will be destroyed if labor standards are linked to WTO's rules. So the protesters are not speaking on behalf of all workers--just those of industrialized nations.
As for child labor, India and other developing countries are seeking to eliminate it--on their own volition and as a basic social objective. But child labor exists for reasons much deeper and much more complex than are realized by the Seattle protesters. The fundamental reason is the acute poverty of the children's families. According to one estimate, the abolition of child labor in India by, say, 2010 would require $15 billion to $20 billion. Is the West or anyone else ready to make available this magnitude of funds over the next 10 years or so to tackle this problem? It is a sinister assumption that child labor exists in poor countries in order to cut costs or to gain an advantage in international trade.
The Seattle protesters seem to have also forgotten that a large chunk of labor in poor countries, especially in agriculture, is unorganized labor--not because the rights to freedom of association or collective bargaining are denied, but because it best suits the workers' ethos and conditions. In what way can WTO rules or even International Labor Org-anization conventions handle unorganized labor? Also, will linking labor standards to trade rules not drive more and more labor to the unorganized sector to avoid the stringency of the trade disciplines?
As for environmental issues, the protesters need to recognize that environmental degradation is being caused by two segments of people: the affluent and the poor, or the greedy and the needy. The former are polluting the environment by excessive levels of consumption and the latter are forced into unsustainable practices by poverty. The approach needed to tackle these two varieties is different, but trade rules applied in a simplistic manner can hardly solve the fundamental problems.
Furthermore, several issues of concern to the developing world have received scant attention from the environmental lobbies. These include the implications of the patenting of life forms; not recognizing the contributions of indigenous and rural communities in terms of biodiversity, genetic resources and traditional knowledge; the indiscriminate patenting of plants, medicines and other products that are already well known in the Third World; and the consequences of genetically engineered and patented seeds. Consider the result of WTO rules that deny developing nations the right to have automatic licensing on patented but essential medicines. Yet that issue was not articulated by the protesters, who seemed quite concerned about protecting rare species. Is the health of the turtles a matter of greater concern than the health of the poor?
Developing countries have therefore strong reasons to believe that the push for linking labor and environmental issues to the trade rules of the WTO is not motivated by moral or ethical considerations. There is no factual evidence or economic logic to support assertions that if such a link is not forged, there will be a "race to the bottom" around the world and host countries will deliberately lower standards in order to attract investment and enhance trade opportunities.
There is, however, one perverse point on which the street protesters in Seattle and in New Delhi seem to be united: From different viewpoints, they both want the WTO to be closed. The former want it to be closed if it does not expand its agenda to include labor and environmental standards. And the latter want the WTO to be closed if its agenda is expanded to include any more new issues.
Good causes are often lost by pursuing wrong means.
A.V. Ganesan is a former commerce secretary of India.