EU/US symposium welcomes sectoral codes of conduct on labour standards

A joint EU/US Symposium held in Brussels in February 1998 looked at measures which could be taken to safeguard basic international labour standards and human rights. The symposium highlighted examples of sectoral codes of conduct from the USA and the European Union.

On 20 February 1998, representatives of decision-making bodies, businesses, trade unions and non -governmental organisations from the USA and the European Union met in Brussels to exchange views on codes of conduct aimed at safeguarding basic labour standards and protecting human rights. The meeting highlighted the recent adoption of such standards in several sectors on both sides of the Atlantic. The symposium was part of a wider transatlantic agenda of action which aims to promote the development of codes of conduct concerning working conditions.

Pádraig Flynn, the member of the European Commission responsible for employment and social affairs, Alexis Harman, the US Secretary of Labour, and Andrew Smith, the UK Minister of Employment, opened the symposium. Mr Flynn welcomed the dialogue, and stated that the "European Commission attaches great importance to the promotion of core labour standards worldwide," arguing that the best chance of achieving good working conditions for people around the world was through a partnership approach.

The commissioner argued that in the EU, trade unions and management had developed a strong tradition of partnership via the sectoral social dialogue on a range of issues. As a result, in a number of European sectors, agreements have been reached concerning international labour standards (EU9801177F). For example, in the commerce sector, a joint statement on combating child labour was issued in March 1996, while the European social partners in the footwear industry agreed a charter against child labour on 20 March 1997. In September 1997, the social partners in the textile and clothing industry signed a code of conduct which encourages the European industry to comply with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions on forced labour, freedom of association and the right to negotiate, child labour and non-discrimination in employment (EU9709150N)

Similarly, in the USA, there is the "apparel industry partnership agreement" which aims at the eradication of sweatshops in the USA and abroad and is supported by a number of major companies. The agreement includes a workplace code of conduct setting out humane conditions and addressing issues such as forced labour, child labour, health and safety and freedom of association.

The symposium is part of the Commission's ongoing efforts to promote greater respect of internationally accepted social standards. Within the EU's Generalised System of Preferences (GSP s) governing trade with third countries, the Commission recently proposed a range of incentives for those countries which respect particular social standards and the fundamental rights of workers. The Commission has also supported the establishment of a working group in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on the link between trade and internationally recognised labour standards. There are thus clear linkages being made between increasing trade liberalisation and the maintenance or development of adequate systems of social protection.

The symposium essentially aimed to exchange ideas, and to consider how mechanisms can be developed to ensure that companies comply with codes of practice. The symposium debated the options for monitoring companies either internally or externally, and it was suggested by Mr Flynn that an external assessment would make commitments look stronger and assist smaller firms which face difficulties in complying with the joint codes of conduct. Mr Flynn expressed his belief that the symposium would be of great value in strengthening and extending partnerships for improved working conditions across a greater range of sectors both in the EU and beyond.

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