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Reich Urges Global Basic List of Labor Standards

GENEVA, Switzerland -- U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, in a speech here Thursday, called for worldwide acceptance of a "core list" of international labor standards and the option to resort to selective punitive trade measures against nations that...

GENEVA, Switzerland — U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, in a speech here Thursday, called for worldwide acceptance of a “core list” of international labor standards and the option to resort to selective punitive trade measures against nations that violated such norms.

In an address to 169 labor ministers attending the annual International Labor Organization conference here, Reich singled out production by prison or slave labor, some forms of child labor — such as work by very young children — and blatant restriction of freedom of association, as abusive practices that could trigger a response.

Reich said the international community clearly cannot attempt to dictate to poor developing nations working hours, wages, benefits and health and safety standards that match those of the U.S. and other industrialized nations.

He argued, however, that it is nevertheless appropriate to expect labor standards to improve as poor nations move up the scale of economic development. The U.S., he said, will place a priority on the World Trade Organization, which is slated to take over from GATT on Jan. 1, 1995, to examine the link between international trade and labor standards.

Responses from representatives of developing Asian nations and other regions contended the trade-labor link is a pretext for a hidden protectionist agenda.

Singapore’s labor minister Goh Chee Wee, for example, said the attempt to link trade with social issues is “a disguised form of protectionism, aimed at eroding [the developing nations’] comparative advantage and blunting their competitiveness.”