ETUC calls for social clauses in trade agreements

In December 1997, the executive committee of the European Trade Union Confederation adopted a resolution which calls for "social clauses" to be inserted into all European Union trade agreements. The abolition of forced and child labour, as well as the guaranteeing of minimum standards of working conditions at the international level are among the main preoccupations of such clauses. This issue has also been considered in the sectoral social dialogue, in the context of an increasing focus on ethical standards in trading.

There has, in recent years, been an increasing focus on corporate conduct in terms of social, ethical and environmental performance. The experience of large multinational corporations such as Nike and Shell, which have been faced with protest campaigns against their social and environmental policies, has galvanised actors in this area. Many organisations are beginning to recognise that their profitability in the long term depends as much on on their performance in satisfying the aspirations of their "stakeholders" - including customers, suppliers, employees, local communities, investors, governments, and interest groups - in terms of their social and environmental record, as it does on price and quality.

The ETUC resolution on social clauses

At its meeting on 4/5 December, the executive committee of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) adopted a resolution on "The European Union and social clauses" which calls for "social clauses" to be introduced into all European Union trade agreements, in order to underline the respect for democratic principles and human rights, as well as international standards regarding working conditions.

This is seen to be particularly important as the EU is occupying a more and more important place on the international scene, not only economically and politically, but also in terms of trade. ETUC calls upon the Union to use its multilateral and bilateral economic, development aid and trade links to promote social justice in the world and thus to reinforce its own "European social model".

To this end, ETUC requests that the European Union and its Member States ensure that the commitments made at the United Nations World Social Summit in Copenhagen in 1995 and Peking Conference on Women's Rights in 1996 are applied, and to ensure that all treaties and agreements entered into with third countries include a social dimension, particularly in respect of the support for human rights.

The EU already includes provisions aimed at supporting the fight against forced labour, the elimination of child labour and the promotion of freedom of association into trade agreements, a step which is welcomed by ETUC. In addition, the ETUC executive committee requests the Council of Ministers to accept the new proposals from the European Commission concerning child labour and freedom of association, so that they can be applied with effect from 1 January 1998 (the Commission adopted a Communication on The trading system and internationally recognised labour standards in 1996). The provisions on child labour call upon EU countries to adopt coherent practices, including the ratification of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 138 on the minimum age for employment by all Member States, as well as the application of the EU Directive on the protection of young workers (94/33/EC). For the implementation of such provisions, Member States are asked to call upon the expertise of the ILO.

ETUC also calls upon all affiliated organisations to commit themselves more to drawing up codes of conduct as well as campaigning for "social labels" as instruments of increasing awareness and taking note of activities carried out by human rights organisations, social NGOs and consumer organisations.

Human rights and the sectoral social dialogue

The ETUC executive committee commends the results obtained by the ETUC affiliates, the European Trade Union Committee: Textiles, Clothing and Leather (ETUC:TCL) and the Euro-FIET commerce section, in agreeing joint codes of conduct and joint statements on basic human rights and child labour with their employer counterparts - EURATEX and EuroCommerce respectively.

The European code of conduct signed by ETUC:TCL and EURATEX on 22 September 1997 (EU9709150N) calls upon member organisations to embrace the following ILO Conventions:

  • prohibition of forced labour - Conventions 29 and 105;
  • freedom of association and negotiation - Conventions 87 and 98;
  • prohibition of child labour - Convention 138; and
  • the principle of non-discrimination in employment - Convention 111.

The social partners in the textiles sector called upon their members to include the code of conduct in all sectoral and company level agreements. The implementation of the code is to be followed up on an annual basis.

The Joint statement on combating child labour signed by Euro-FIET and EuroCommerce on 8 March 1996 emphasises that:

  • where child labour exists, the countries concerned have a duty to combat the exploitation of children which is in violation of their human rights, including those embodied in the laws of those countries;
  • the countries concerned should undertake measures with the objective of guaranteeing that the children's right to a normal adolescence and education is ensured;
  • development aid policies should give positive support for these measures;
  • the social partners are aware of the growing consumer demand for goods not produced by child labour;
  • wherever possible, dealing with goods produced in contravention of children's rights should be avoided;
  • retailers, wholesalers and the international trades should be alerted to signs which may indicate that a production process involves exploitation of children; and
  • commerce should support reasonable and practicable steps to use only reputable suppliers.

In order to follow up the joint statement, Euro-FIET and EuroCommerce have committed themselves to the distribution of the text in all Community languages, as well as to have an exchange of information on initiatives taken in this area at the international, national, regional and company level.

Commentary

The social and environmental performance of companies is has been receiving increasing attention in recent years and big companies have been keen to counteract any bad publicity in this area. The use of child labour in particular has been in the spotlight of public attention, not least because of conferences held on the subject in Amsterdam and Oslo in 1997. Although no concrete data are available, it is estimated that there are approximately 250 million child labourers in the world, of which at least 120 million are in full-time employment. Many child labourers work in dangerous and exploitative conditions which not only deprive them of their right to a decent childhood and education, but also of their health and future. While child labour is a worldwide problem, occurring not only in developing, but also in industrialised countries, its magnitude is most staggering in the developing world and is often associated with poverty, high unemployment among adults and lack of access to education. Poverty is therefore not only a cause of child labour, but is also perpetuated by it.

Any initiatives seeking to eradicate child labour have to take into account the problems linked with child labour and the factors which cause child labour in the producing countries, and poverty in particular. It has been estimated that 650 million children live in extreme poverty worldwide and their numbers are rising. Many children work because they have no access to education (for geographical or financial reasons) and/or because their parents and other adult relations are unemployed. Where adult unemployment is high, child labour is often widespread, because it becomes the only means for survival. It has been argued that a mere refusal to source products from countries which use child labour is inadequate on its own, but requires further supporting action, particularly in the areas of economic, social and education policy. Examples have shown that the threat of an import or trade ban can lead to thousands of child labourers being laid off. Without supporting action, they are often returned to more dire forms of poverty and exploitation. It is therefore important to learn from initiatives which have succeeded in avoiding such detrimental effects and which focus on prevention, removal and rehabilitation. This needs to include the provision of an income for adult workers which allows them to raise a family in which children can thrive.

While it has been argued that legislation is potentially the most powerful weapon against child labour, it is often difficult to enforce because of the nature of businesses employing child workers (geographically dispersed, often family or very small businesses, often operating from home), under-resourcing and a lack of power of inspection authorities.

Initiatives at European level to combat child labour and ensure human rights therefore have to take into account the complex nature of interactions between industrialised and developing countries and within developing countries. (Tina Weber, ECOTEC Research and Consulting Ltd)

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