Labour rights have been a contentious issue in the context of international trade. Should the WTO engage more actively in promoting fairer and better standards for labour right? Can countries be permitted to pursue an "aggressive" stand on labour conditions to the detriment of trade by countries having lower standards of labour rights? Is the WTO the right fora for these issues? Do the General Exceptions clause (Article XX) of GATT permit countries to impose measures that restrict trade on the grounds of labour conditions not being followed? Is maintaining labour conditions and removal of abhorrent practises like forced and child labour exclusively within the preserve of domestic policy space or does it spillover to international fora, particularly the WTO?
At the international level the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is responsible for overseeing and implementing labour standards. In a new report titled the "Giving Globalization a human face" the ILO has conducted a General survey that examines for the first time the challenges and successes in implementing all eight of its fundamental labour standards on freedom of association and collective bargaining, forced and child labour and discrimination in the workplace. The report is an exhaustive account of the status of labour rights implementation across the globe especially in relation to forced labour and child labour. Noting the role of the implementation methodology of the ILO system the Report concludes:
"Over the last 20 years, the Committee has noted hundreds of important cases of progress in law and practice on the application of ratified ILO Conventions, more than 50 per cent of which concern the application of the eight fundamental Conventions. These cases of progress are in part a direct result of the fact that a number of countries have achieved full democracy over the past decades and have developed systems and mechanisms to protect human rights. In this respect, the Committee welcomes the fact that the provisions of the fundamental Conventions and the principles of the supervisory bodies have been applied in a significant number of countries through the jurisprudence of the national courts. Much of this progress is linked, however, to the action of the ILO supervisory bodies (which include in particular the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, the Conference Committee on the Application of Standards of the International Labour Conference and the Committee on Freedom of Association) and the action of the Office at headquarters and in the field, through technical cooperation and technical assistance. The ILO supervisory machinery is thus both relevant and effective, is a valuable tool for the development of decent work and is essential to guarantee the rights of employers and workers. This vital mission explains the increasing interest of the international community in promoting the rights contained in these fundamental Conventions and the significant resources dedicated to the ILO to achieve this strategic objective. Moreover, an analysis of the “cases of interest” noted by the Committee in its reports (which are a reflection of the positive steps taken by the authorities) highlights that a very high number of draft laws and policies are under preparation or already submitted to the national legislative authorities, more often than not as a result of the Committee‟s previous requests to this end. This trend illustrates the importance of tripartite dialogue at the national level in improving the application of the ratified Conventions, which in turn reveals the vitality and dynamism of the interaction between governments and the Committee."
With the ILO undertaking such steps to implement and supervise labour standards with the help of national governments, would it be reasonable to argue that the WTO is not the right forum to agitate issues of labour standards? Some argue that labour rights should be actively pursued in negotiations at the WTO. others view it as a "disguised" threat of protectionism and way of restricting trade from the developing countries. Are "universal" standards of labour rights all pervasive to justify intervention by the WTO? Would they be considered as imposing unreasonable restrictions on international trade?