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Crafting an International Legal Regime for Worker Rights: Assessing the Literature since the 1999 Seattle WTO Protests

  • John D. French (a1) and Kristin Wintersteen (a1)


Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, critical attention has increasingly focused on the remaining world system, capitalist in nature and anchored in the World Trade Organization (WTO), founded in 1994 as the successor to the 1948 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). As the 1990s progressed, a smattering of exciting new intellectual work began to appear on the social and environmental impacts of the international trade and investment regime, especially given its apparently negative impact on many developing countries and the world's working people. “The distinction somewhat comfortably maintained by ‘trade hands’ who managed the post-World War II international economy—that trade is strictly a commercial function with no immediate connection to social concerns—has evaporated under the pressure of political and social forces generated by the globalization of the economy.”



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1. Compa, Lance and Diamond, Stephen, eds. Human Rights, Labor Rights, and International Trade (Philadelphia, 1996), 2.

2. French, John D., “From the Suites to the Streets of Seattle: The Unexpected Re-Emergence of the ‘Labor Question,’ 1994–1999,” Labor History 43 (2002): 285304; French, Globalizing Protest and Policy: Neoliberalism, Worker Rights, and the Rise of Alt-Global Politics, forthcoming.

3. Compa and Diamond, Human Rights, Labor Rights; French, John D., “Comercio y Trabajo en el Mundo: Hacia la Cláusula Social,” Nueva Sociedad 148 (1997): 142–57; Charnovitz, Steve, “Trade Employment, and Labour Standards,” Temple International and Comparative Law Journal, 11 (1997); Haworth, Nigel and Hughes, Steve, “Trade and International Labour Standards,” Journal of Industrial Relations 39 (1997): 179–95; Wilkinson, Rorden and Hughes, Steve, “Labor Standards and Global Governance,” Global Governance 6 (2000): 259277; O'Brien, Robert, Goetz, Anne Marie, Scholte, Jan Aart, and Williams, Marc, Contesting Global Governance: Multilateral Economic Institutions and Global Social Movements (Cambridge, 2001); Munck, Ronaldo, Globalisation and Labour (London, 2002).

4. French, John D., “Wal-Mart, Retail Supremacy, and the Relevance of Political Economy,” Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas 4 (2007): 3839.

5. World Bank, Workers in an Integrating World (Oxford, 1995), 9.

6. Sanderson, Steven, The Politics of Trade in Latin American Development (Stanford, 1992), 10, 212.

7. Sanderson, Politics, 144.

8. World Bank, Workers, 248–249.

9. Feis, Herbert, “International Labour Legislation in the Light of Economic Theory,” International Labour Review (ILR) 15 (1927): 491518.

10. Ibid., 491.

11. The reports share the common title, Monitoring International Labor Standards (Washington, 2003–4), which includes written statements from 2002–2003 forums held in New York and Los Angeles, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, and South Africa: Summary of Domestic Forums (2003); Human Capital Investment: Summary of a Workshop (2003); Techniques and Sources of Information (2004); International Perspectives: Summary of Regional Forums (2004).

12. NRC, Monitoring: Techniques, 3–4.

13. Böhning, W.R., Labour Rights in Crisis: Measuring the Achievement of Human Rights in the World of Work (New York, 2005), xiv, 12, 13.

14. Charnovitz, Steve, “Fair Labour Standards and International Trade,” Journal of World Trade Law 20 (1986): 68; Malanowksi, Norbert, “Social and Environmental Standards in International Trade Agreements,” in Social and Environmental Standards in International Trade Agreements, ed. Malanowksi, (Munster, 1997), 2; Gloria Muller, “Foreword,” In Malanowski, Social, 7, 9; Leary, Virginia, “Workers' Rights and International Trade,” in Fair Trade and Harmonization, Volume 2: Legal Analysis, ed. Bhagwati, Jagdish and Hudec, Robert E. (Cambridge, 1997), 178; de Wet, Erika, “Labor Standards in the Globalized Economy,” Human Rights Quarterly 17 (1995): 445; Von Schöpenthau, Philip, “La Cláusua Social: Un Arma Inadecuada En La Lucha Por Los Derechos Humanos y Las Normas Sociales,” in La Cláusua Social: ¿Una Estrategia Sindical Ante La Liberalización Comercial, ed. Maihold, Günther and Sole, Guillermo Villalobos (San José, 1995), 2122; OECD and Deléchat, Corinne, et al. , Trade, Employment and Labour Standards: A Study of Core Workers' Rights and International Trade, (Paris, 1996), 11.

15. Charnovitz, Steve, “The Influence of International Labor Standards on the World Trading Regime,” ILR 126 (1987): 580.

16. French, John D., “Trade Unionism and the Fight to Reshape the World That Trade Built: International Worker Rights in a Globalizing World, 1959–1999,” in Labour and New Social Movements in a Globalizing World System, ed. Unfried, Berthold and van der Linden, Marcel (Linz, 2004), 155178.

17. On US government policy-making: Lorenz, Edward C., Defining Global Justice: The History of U.S. International Labor Standards Policy (Notre Dame, 2001).

18. Greven, Thomas, Clash of Globalizations? The Politics of International Labor Rights in the United States (Frankfurt am Main/New York, 2003), 8990.

19. French, John D., “North American Free Trade Agreement,” in Encyclopedia of US Labor and Working Class History, ed. Arnesen, Eric (New York, 2006).

20. French, John D., “Labor and NAFTA: Nationalist Reflexes and Transnational Imperatives in North America,” in Labour and Globalisation, ed. Munck, Ronaldo (Liverpool, 2004), 149165.

21. Bhagwati, Jagdish, In Defense of Globalization (New York, 2004).

22. Singh, Nirvikar, “The Impact of International Labor Standards [Comment by T.N. Srinivasan],” in Basu, Kaushik, Horn, Henrik, Román, Lisa and Shapiro, Judith, eds., International Labor Standards: History, Theory, and Policy Options (Malden, 2003), 107.

23. Lal, Deepak, Resurection of the Pauper-Labour Argument, (London, 1981).

24. Ross, Robert, Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops (Ann Arbor, 2004), 121122; 288.

25. Ross, Slaves, 323–330, examines these fallacies in a section titled “are sweatshops good for you.” A proglobalization tract by free trade economist Pietra Rivoli showed creativity in its research: The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power and Politics of World Trade (Hoboken, N.J, 2005).

26. Basu et al, International, 186.

27. Flanagan, Robert, “Labor Standards and International Competitive Advantage,” in Flanagan, Robert and Gould, William, eds., International Labor Standards: Globalization, Trade, and Public Policy (Stanford, CA., 2003), 47.

28. Gavin Kitching similarly defends globalization as an “enormous benefit to the poorest and most oppressed.” In a provocative, if anguished, book, this one-time leftist development economist of Africa explains how he came to his antinationalist third position. In his despairing vision of a world divided, he opts for the poorest of the world's poor in face of what he deems to be ignorant and nationalistic protestors at Seattle. [Seeking Social Justice through Globalization: Escaping a Nationalist Perspective (University Park, PA., 2001), xiv, 308].

29. Hepple, Bob, Labour Laws and Global Trade (Oxford, 2005), xii, 3, 16, 135, 271, 274. Unlike Hepple, Philip Alson is skeptical that transnational and domestic law is being woven together even in the European Union whose “approach to collective labour rights enforcement within member state is piecemeal, a product of limited competences and of an apparent lack of political will” (Alston, Philip, ed Labour Rights as Human Rights [Oxford, 2005], 20). For an empirically-driven study: Gauri, Varun and Brinks, Daniel M., eds., Courting Social Justice: Judicial Enforcement of Social and Economic Rights in the Developing World (Cambridge, 2008).

30. Hepple, Labour, 20–21.

31. Ibid., 3, xi. In his vocabulary, “neoliberal” refers to right-wing Thatcherites, not Bill Clinton or Tony Blair.

32. Hepple, Bob, ed., Social and Labour Rights in a Global Context: International and Comparative Perspectives (Cambridge/New York, 2002), 2.

33. Lord Wedderburn, “Common Law, Labour Law, Global Law,” in Hepple, ed., Social, 27, 51.

34. Conaghan, Joanne, Fischl, Richard, and Klare, Karl, et al. , eds., Labour Law in an Era of Globalization: Transformative Practices and Possibilities (Oxford, 2002), 23, 171.

35. Ibid., 1, 3, 23, 25, 40 143. Alston, Labour Rights, 14.

36. Ibid., 27, 171.

37. Stanley L. Engerman, “The History and Political Economy of International Labor Standards,” In: Basu et al., International, 29–30.

38. Conaghan et al., eds., Labour Law, 27, 113, 139.

39. Chloe Arnold, “Russia: Oil Spill Highlights Tragic Environmental Legacy,” Radio Free Europe Nov. 28, 2007; BBC News, “Black Sea faces environmental ‘catastrophe,’” BBC News Nov. 13, 2007.

40. International Maritime Organization (IMO), International Shipping and World Trade, Facts and Figures, available from (updated October 2007, accessed Nov. 30, 2007); Burgherr, Peter, “In-depth analysis of accidental oil spills from tankers in the context of global spill trends from all sources,” Journal of Hazardous Materials 140 (2007): 245256.

41. IMO, International Shipping, 18, 25; Rogers, Paul, “Obstacles in San Francisco Bay put Big Ships on ‘Full Alert,’San José Mercury News Nov. 11, 2007.

42. Lillie, Nathan, A Global Union for Global Workers: Collective Bargaining and Regulatory Politics in Maritime Shipping (New York, 2006), 10; DeSombre, Elizabeth, Flagging Standards: Globalization and Environmental, Safety, and Labor Regulations at Sea (Cambridge, 2006), 13.

43. IMO, International Shipping, 26.

44. DeSombre, Flagging, 4; Lillie, Global, 42. For a thorough study of this campaign's early development, see Northrup, Herbert and Rowan, Richard, The International Transport Workers' Federation and Flag of Convenience Shipping (Philadelphia, PA, 1983).

45. Buckingham, Lisa and Springett, Pauline, “Those in Peril on the Seas,” The Guardian (London) Mar. 22, 1997, 28.

46. IMO, International Shipping, 7, 9; in 2008 the ITF listed a total of 32 Flags of Convenience states, including several landlocked countries such as Bolivia [ITF, “FOC Countries,” available from (accessed Aug. 27, 2008)].

47. IMO, International Shipping, 26. Nathan Lillie reports that the monthly median wage for an Able Seaman ranges from about five to 22 times higher than the wage for an onshore industrial worker from the same country, depending on the nationality of the worker (Lillie, Global, 41).

48. DeSombre, Flagging, 3.

49. Ibid., 53, 55.

50. Ibid., 228.

51. Lillie, Global, 7.

52. Ibid., 1–2.

53. Ibid., 16; ITF, “Flags of Convenience.” One study cited by Lillie estimates that a seafarer working on a ship with an ITF contract earns as much as 50% more than s/he would if receiving the market wage rate on a non-ITF ship (Lillie, Global, 40).

54. Lillie, Global, 143.

55. Ibid., 65–66.

56. Ibid., 145; see also 65–88.

57. Ibid., 110.

58. This refers to the Preparatory Technical Maritime Conference of September 2004 (Ibid., 115).

59. Ibid., 116.

60. Ibid., 50.

61. Ibid., 40.

62. DeSombre, Flagging, 210, 216–217.

63. Lillie, Global, 7.

64. Ibid., 16.

65. Ibid., 10.

66. The ITF decides whether to designate an open registry as a FOC based on “whether the nationality of the shipowner is the same as the nationality of the flag” [ITF, “Flags of Convenience Campaign,” available from (accessed Nov. 30, 2007)].

67. Seidman, Gay, Beyond the Boycott: Labor Rights, Human Rights, and Transnational Activism (New York, 2007).

68. Ibid., 47.

69. Ibid., 10.

70. For a wide-ranging treatment of business ethics and “corporate social responsibility” with detailed company studies: Hartman, Laura Pincus, Arnold, Denis, and Wokutch, Richard, eds., Rising above Sweatshops: Innovative Approaches to Global Labor Challenges (Westport, 2003).

71. Seidman, Beyond, 11.

72. Ibid., 17, 28.

73. Ibid., 34, 37.

74. Seidman, Beyond, 61–62.

75. A similar international child labor campaign resulted in a partnership agreement in 1997 between the ILO, UNICEF, and business interests in Sialkot, Pakistan, which produces seventy five percent of the world's hand-stitched soccer balls, to deal with the twenty percent of the total workforce that were children (Flanagan and Gould, eds., International, 220–221).

76. Seidman, Beyond, 73.

77. Ibid., 91–92.

78. Ibid., 63.

79. Ibid., 139. Labor rights monitoring NGOs, a business scholar noted, include both groups who “wholeheartedly” embrace cooperation with, and financing from, companies and those who opt for a more strictly confrontational strategy (USSAS, unions). From a company point of view, the result is a “good cop, bad cop” routine in which “radically divergent tactics of confrontations and cooperation” prove highly complementary. [Michael Santoro, “Philosophy Applied I: How Nongovernmental Organizations and Multinational Enterprises Can Work Together to Protect Global Labor Rights,” in Hartman, et al., Rising, 109–110).

80. Ibid., 7.

81. Ibid., 140.

82. Ibid., 107–109; Frundt, Henry J., Trade Conditions and Labor Rights: U.S. Initiatives, Dominican and Central American Responses (Gainesville, 1998), 6, 86–87.

83. Rosen, Ellen, Making Sweatshops: The Globalization of the U.S. Apparel Industry (Berkeley, 2002), 145146.

84. Greven, Clash, 82–84.

85. Seidman, Beyond, 120, 143.

86. Armbruster-Sandoval, Ralph, Globalization and Cross-Border Labor Solidarity in the Americas: The Anti-Sweatshop Movement and the Struggle for Social Justice (New York, 2005).

87. Ibid., 9.

88. Ibid., 49.

89. Ibid., 25. The activists involved actively reflected on their own practice: Coats, StephenFree Trade and Labor Cooperation across Borders: Recent U.S./Guatemalan Experiences,” Latin American Labor News, 8 (1993): 10, 11.

90. See Ibid., 22–23 drawing on Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink's typology of strategies: information, symbolic, leverage, and accountability [Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, 1998)].

91. Armbruster-Sandoval, Globalization, 31.

92. Ibid., 51, 58.

93. Ibid., 83–84, 104–105, 132.

94. Ibid., 107, 107n2; the term “sweatshop warriors” comes from Louie, Miriam Ching Yoon, Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Take on the Global Factory (Boston, 2001), 34.

95. Armbruster-Sandoval, Globalization, 153.

96. Rosen, Making, 242.

97. See the classic essay by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Lewis, W. Arthur, “Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour,” in Agarwala, A.N. and Singh, S.P., eds., The Economics of Underdevelopment (London, 1969), 401449.

98. Ross, Slaves, 125–146; Lichtenstein, Nelson, ed., Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism (New York, 2006).

99. Frundt, Trade. For a sample GSP petition on Guatemala filed in June 1990: see Sugarman, Jim, Field Guide to Labor Rights (Washington, 1993), 4757. See also LaWare, David, “Solidarismo in Costa Rica: The AFL-CIO Charges Labor Rights Violations,” Latin American Labor News, 10–11 (1994): 6, 14–15.

100. The controversy over the GSP IRWR clause in the Reagan/Bush era stemmed from its use to achieve U.S. Cold War foreign policy objectives. Advocates contested this distorted administration in court: Terry Collingsworth, “International Worker Rights Enforcement: Proposals Following a Test Case.” In Human, ed. Compa and Diamond, 227–250.

101. Frundt, Trade Conditions, 152–153, 141, 257, 264–265, 266.

102. Ibid., 32.

103. Ross, Slaves, 280–299, for an intro to the WTO social clause debate; also French, “Comercio.”

104. Kruger, In Basu, et al., International, 248.

105. Ross, Slaves, 249–266, offers a sociological analysis of the emergence of student sweatshop activism with a sympathetic evaluation of activist outlooks.

106. French, “Wal-Mart,” 39.

107. Ross, Slaves, 9.

108. Ross, Slaves, 44, 300. On sweatshops and activism, both past and present: Bender, Daniel E. and Greenwald, Richard A., eds. Sweatshop USA: The American Sweatshop in Historical and Global Perspective (New York, 2003).

109. Ross, Slaves, 37.

110. Compa, Lance, Unfair Advantage: Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States under International Human Rights Standards (Washington, 2000); also available online at (accessed Aug. 28, 2008).

111. Ross, Slaves, 308.

112. Brian Langille, “General Reflection on the Relationship of Trade and Labor,” in Bhagwati and Hudec, eds., Fair Trade, Volume 2, 238, 253.

113. French, “Wal-Mart,” 39.

114. Ross, Slaves, 322.


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