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Press Briefing by Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman and National Economic Advisor Gene Sperling on Signing of ILO Convention, December 2, 1999

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The Briefing Room



Office of the Press Secretary
(Seattle, Washington)

For Immediate Release December 2, 1999


The "W" Hotel
Seattle, Washington

10:00 A.M. PST

SECRETARY HERMAN: Thank you very much. Let me just say, this was a very important day for the United States and, indeed, for the world community in signing the convention that the President did to ban the most abusive forms of child labor around the globe.

This was a treaty that has been two years in the making. This was a discussion that began in Geneva at the ILO over two years ago. And the fact of the matter is, there were few who actually believed that we would arrive at the point that we have arrived at today, that includes not only the record submission of the treaty to the United States Senate by the administration but, in fact, the Senate, itself, ratified this treaty in historic time, in less than three months. This was due to the cooperation that we received from not only Senator Helms, but actually Senator Biden and Senator Harkin, as well, working very closely together to ensure ratification.

This treaty is important not only for the substance of what it achieves, but also for the symbolism and the context of being here, at the WTO in Seattle. Substantively, we recognize that there are more than 250 children around the world today that the ILO estimates exist today working in conditions of abusive child labor, from child pornography to child prostitution to forced labor.

And, in addition to recognizing that, this convention will actually set up standards by which the entire global community has agreed to conduct itself, with special provisions for education and for training, recognizing that nations today cannot rise on the backs of their children. I think it is also important symbolically that we have signed it here in Seattle, because few believed that we could actually achieve any success with any kind of core labor standard. Many said that, even though most of us should believe that the eradication of the most abusive forms of child labor is something that should be achievable by the world community.

The debate between developed countries and developing nations was still a very serious debate as to whether or not this provision would actually undermine the economies in developing countries. It was greatly debated for two years, and I think the fact that we were able to achieve a unanimity on the part of the world community suggests that through this standard that we should be able to look at other core labor standards in a similar fashion.

I believe very strongly that, by passing this child labor standard, that it in fact lays the foundation for us to begin to do the work for other core labor standards that we need to have around the globe today. And the fact that we were able to successfully pass this child labor standard unanimously at the ILO I think points the way for greater debate, for a more inclusive debate, on what we can do more broadly to level up and not level down global standards today and to help ensure that this will be a race to the top and not a race to the bottom; but more importantly when we talk about putting people at the center of the global economic agenda today, we have taken the first step, in my view, with the signing of this historic convention.

MR. SPERLING: It is worth noting that child labor has been an issue that this President has addressed in two consecutive States of the Union. It is likely that no president has ever made this a focus, not only once but twice, in his State of the Unions. In January of '98, the President called for a dramatic, ten-fold increase in our contribution to the ILO arm that deals with child labor -- that's IPEC, the International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor. That increase, from $3 million to $30 million doubled -- it doubled -- the entire ILO effort that deals with addressing child labor. So that effort, which was funded at $30 million and then again at $30 million, is the most dramatic funding increase for the ILO efforts to fight child labor.

After the President addressed that in the State of the Union in 1998, he then addressed it in 1999, that we would seek to make an all-out effort to have this convention passed in Geneva and then ratified this year. And so again, it addresses another success -- child labor agenda that the President has put out in his States of the Union. In addition to the IPEC initiative, the $30 million for the International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor, we have also increased funding for the customs enforcement at the Treasury Department, who, as the President mentioned, have taken action against importation of bidis, cigarettes made in India with child and forced labor.

There also has been increase in Alexis Herman's domestic enforcement budget, from $9 million to $13 million, so that we are also addressing child labor at home. And we have also sought initiatives to focus on education through the AID, through the State Department. So this continues to be a comprehensive effort that the President has been leading, now, in addressing child labor. And Secretary Herman and I are at this moment working on additional steps that could be part of the President's next budget, as well.

Q Madam Secretary, you stressed the symbolic nature of the document. But I guess I'm wondering, on the question of what teeth actually exist, if none of the countries where these child labor problems exist has ratified this, what sort of enforced mechanism is there? What will the United States or other countries do to countries that don't comply with these standards?

SECRETARY HERMAN: I used the term "symbolism" on purpose because, as pleased as we are with the outcome of the actual document, which will have a report in terms of member countries to actually report on what is going on in terms of child labor within their specific countries -- which has not been possible before through the ILO -- I think that that document, in and of itself, will be a very powerful document that we will be able to hold up, both in terms of moral and political persuasion, quite frankly, as the global community itself is becoming more and more aware of products that are being made by children in child labor conditions.

I think the consumer movement of the world today certainly will be a powerful force in paying closer attention to those countries. And I believe that all of this combined together will help to serve as a deterrent for child labor conditions that do exist in countries around the globe today.

But the symbolism that I spoke to as well was also on the process; because the fact of the matter is we could not advance a debate in the ILO on this standard, quite frankly, or any other standard, for fear that it would lead to other issues regarding obviously what would the enforcement mechanism be, what would the sanctions be, what would the penalties be. And so the process of simply getting this debate on the table was an enormous challenge for the global community.

Once doing that, we then could not reach any kind of consensus on how we would begin to fashion a standard, what would the accountability mechanism be and how would we be able to work together, developed and developing nations. The work that went into achieving the outcome was just as important process-wise, to show that there are ways that we can talk about basic labor standards -- in this regard, child labor -- achieve unanimity and agree on a process of accountability.

So for me, that was just as important as the outcome, because I think it really does lay the foundation to be able to talk about other basic labor standards around the world today. This will be an annual report that will come forward from the ILO itself, yes.

Q The President said in his interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that he supported ultimately imposing sanctions against countries that violate the core international labor standards. Is that his view and is that the first time he has said that?

MR. SPERLING: The President's focus, as all of our focus is, in launching this new round, is on having a working group on trade and labor that would provide a forum to analyze and ultimately make recommendations to future trade ministerial meetings on how the issues of core labor standards should be dealt with, what the impacts of labor -- of opening markets has on core labor standards. That is our focus now.

What the President was simply saying is that he believes that as the multilateral process seeks to deal with the appropriate standards and analysis on core labor standards, that ultimately the multilateral process will also have to deal with accountability and enforcement. And I think that that's a fairly basic notion that this should be a rule-based global trade system in which everybody plays by the rules, in which there is accountability through multilateral processes for multilateral agreements.

Q Have officials from other countries raised questions or objections to the President's views on this?

MR. SPERLING: I think that -- I think that there has been, as I have read, really, in some of your articles, I think there may have perhaps been some misunderstandings. But I think that as people understand that what our focus is now is on a working group on trade and labor that would deal with how core labor standards should be reviewed and analyzed, and how recommendations could be made to the next trade ministerial. I think that people are understanding that the President is simply talking about the notion that through the multilateral processes in the future, one would need to also think about how there would be accountability and enforcement for all things agreed on through multilateral trade agreements.

Q Is that the first time the President has said that?

MR. SPERLING: Again, I think that -- you know, if you look at our GSP initiatives, obviously the GSP law allows for retraction of GSP preferential benefits when core labor standards are not met. On NAFTA, there are side agreements with civil monetary penalties. So the notion that in areas related to trade there can be some sense of accountability is nothing new or exceptional.

Q That was my question -- so there's not any conflict, are you telling me? That you've cleared up any conflicts between, say, lesser-developed nations and European nations on this labor issue?

MR. SPERLING: Well, there's no question that the United States has been at the cutting edge of pushing for a working group on trade and labor. And there's no secret that among some developing countries there has been concern that such a working group could somehow be used to fashion standards that might be to the disadvantage of groups that are at an earlier stage of economic development.

And so there's no question that our effort to have a working group on trade and labor is a tough fight, and one that has required us to do significant amounts of outreach to try to explain what the intent and purpose of this is and that by no means would we ever want something dealing with core labor standards to ever be used as a facade or guise to do anything that would be protectionist or harmful to developing countries.

There is no question that there are significant misunderstandings about the intent of a working group on trade and labor, and the United States certainly faces a tough fight in trying to increase understanding of what the goals and intentions of a trade and labor working group are. But it is an effort that we are vigorously making and it is an effort which we hope to be successful at.

What we are trying to do is do significant outreach. We are trying to focus less on labels and more on what is the function of what such an effort would do and, in that way, try to focus the discussion on functionally what would such a working group do and what would it not do. And we are hoping over the next 24 hours to make progress.

Q What is the connection between this and the WTO? Is it just to raise this issue at this time?

MR. SPERLING: I think that the President, for over two years, has stressed the need to find a new consensus on open markets through opening the WTO and opening the issues being considered to have a more human face on the global economy. And signing this convention here expresses a deeply felt worldwide understanding that the commerce and international commerce and open markets that we all seek should be one that is based on certain fundamental values that do not accept having products made at cheaper cost or cheaper prices by the exploitation of children through abusive and forced child labor.

SECRETARY HERMAN: I just wanted to add to that by saying that, you know, there is an acknowledged difference when it comes to the developed countries and the developing countries on the whole issue of the place, really, of core labor standards. Oftentimes, there is an agreement on the principle. But what is at stake here is how we get there, in terms of a process, and the rules that we will employ. Because the fact of the matter is, there is real concern in developing countries that they will not be disadvantaged in the trade process.

And how we achieve, now, a new consensus, a new paradigm, that says that trade in and of itself is not a goal, but that when we can take into account the worker dimension, that these really should be mutually reinforcing goals, where developing countries will not be disadvantaged, it is a new way of thinking. And that is why, quite frankly, the challenge that we're up against in terms of the United States leadership position in this regard is formidable.

But in the same way that we were able to make headway with the Child Labor Convention, quite frankly, I think that, as I said earlier, it lays a foundation for this new consensus, for this new dialogue, to say that there is a way to begin to bridge real differences in this regard.

Q Gene, organized labor in the United States is demanding that any -- whatever forum or working group is set up would consider and study enforceable trade sanctions or protections. Yet the developing world, as you know better than I, is saying that it doesn't want whatever working group or forum is set up to even consider the idea of enforceable trade sanctions or protections.

Might the administration agree to setting up a forum or working group that would agree not to consider enforceable trade rights or sanctions -- enforceable labor rights, excuse me.

MR. SPERLING: I understand your question. Again, our focus is to create a forum -- not a negotiating -- excuse me, not a forum. Our goal is to create a working group that would be a context for analysis of core labor standards and the impact of open trade in various contexts on core labor standards, and a context to provide recommendations to future ministerials on the issues of trade and core labor standards. It is not -- so that is the stage at which this is at. I think that what I think labor organizations have made clear to us is that they would prefer not to see issues taken off the table, that there not be things that took away or limited what that discussion would be. And I think that we agree, clearly, with that sentiment.

On the -- but let me make, I guess, a broader point. What's been very interesting and what has often been under-noticed during this week is that when one looks at the complexity and the variety of the protests that have been expressed, it's hard not to notice that at oftentimes there is more disagreement among the protesters than there often is between the protesters and the WTO or between the protesters and the U.S. government position.

For example, the United States is seeking to take special efforts to both have more inclusion of labor and environmental standards and interest within the WTO. The United States is also seeking to take special efforts to make less developed countries, the poorest countries, more full partners in the benefits of the WTO and of the exporting opportunities of future rounds.

Many of the protesters have expressed similar sentiments, that they want stronger consideration of labor and environment and of how developing countries can get the special assistance that they need to be full partners in the WTO. Yet, some of the greatest tensions come between those who are advocating the interests of the least developed countries and those advocating consideration and inclusion of labor and environmental issues.

And so I think it is striking and important to recognize that these tensions among the protesters themselves almost cry out for the need of a strong WTO, for the need of a strong, rule-based WTO, so that one has a context, a forum in which to decide what is a legitimate consideration of labor and environment and which are simply pretexts for discriminatory protectionism. And so I think that there are some profound tensions and I think one of the real challenges for the United States is that we, as much as any country, are seeking to have this new inclusion of considerations of these developing countries and labor and environment. And part of the challenge is that some of the greatest tensions come between advocates for those causes.

And what I think Alexis is saying is part of our challenge has got to be to create the understanding relationship, so that people understand that when we are talking about considerations of core labor standards, we are talking about interests that we want to be seen as beneficial to workers and working families who have work place issues, social safety net issues in the least developed countries, and not simply the standards of the industrialized countries imposed in a protectionist or discriminatory way on the developing world. And that is one of the real challenges that we're trying to meet here and that is one of the real challenges we are specifically going to have to try to address over the next 24 hours to achieve our goal of having a meaningful working group on labor.

Q If it is a working group, Gene, would you be willing to accept that premise, that we can -- we will rule out any sort of sanctions? This group will not be a sanction group, it will not be recommending sanctions.

MR. SPERLING: I think that when one looks at the stage of what a working group on labor would deal with now, I think that it would be focusing more on the interrelations of core labor standards with new issues of exporting and open markets. So I think that would be the subject matter.

But the United States position would be that there is no reason to rule out or limit what such an advisory group or working group would be able to recommend or discuss.

END 10:25 A.M. PST

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WTO Ministerial Conference 1999

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