Positions of Italian social partners on WTO

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The World Trade Organisation (WTO) held its fourth interministerial meeting in Doha in November 2001, and the Italian social partners took the opportunity to express their views on the WTO's role. According to the Confindustria employers' confederation, the role of the WTO as a body regulating world trade should be strengthened. The Italian trade union confederations are highly critical of the fact that the WTO does not concern itself with social matters.

From 9-14 November 2001, the fourth interministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was held at Doha, Qatar (EU0111239N). Numerous issues were addressed but the most notable included: China's entry into the WTO; the reform of trade agreements, especially in the textiles and agricultural sectors; the protection of intellectual property; patents and pharmaceutical products; and reform of the WTO.

The meeting took place at a particularly critical juncture. The world economy is going through a phase of major uncertainty and crisis, due partly to the events of 11 September. Moreover, the Doha meeting followed the 1999 session in Seattle (EU9912217N), when violent demonstrations were staged against the WTO by anti-globalisation protesters. At Doha, strongly contrasting positions were taken up on numerous issues by the WTO delegates, especially those representing the industrialised and the developing countries.

Besides China's entry into the WTO, one of the main results of the Doha meeting concerned health: it was decided that the developing countries may produce, even without patents, the drugs they need to combat diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria.

The talks did not make any significant progress on social issues, with the ministerial declaration issued at the end of the proceedings stating only that: 'we reaffirm our declaration made at the Singapore Ministerial Conference regarding internationally recognised core labour standards. We take note of work under way in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on the social dimension of globalisation.'

The Italian social partners follow international events with close interest, given that globalisation has a major impact on the Italian economy. Moreover, Italy's is an economy that is especially exposed to international competition: cases in point being sectors such as textiles, footwear, clothing and machine tools.

Confindustria: trade should be regulated

A document entitled 'Italian industry and the new round of WTO multilateral trade negotiations' ('L'industria italiana e il nuovo round di negoziati commerciali multilaterali WTO'), published in October 2001, sets out the position of the Confindustria employers' confederation on the role of the WTO.

Confindustria agrees with the WTO's fundamental principle that the liberalisation of trade is vital for the fostering of economic growth at the global level and the economic progress of the developing countries. However, Confindustria maintains that globalisation should be governed in order prevent unfair competition and to extend the benefits of trade to the poorer countries. This accounts for the importance of an institution like the WTO, which should further strengthen its role, first by acting as a body which lays down clear and shared rules to regulate the international market, and second by acting as a world forum for the settlement of disputes on forms of protectionism or discrimination against companies.

In a document issued following the Doha meeting, Confindustria, in agreement with the position of the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE). has argued that the regulation of social issues like labour standards (workers' rights, employment conditions, workplace health and safety, combating child labour and discrimination etc) and the environmental impact of development should not regulated by the WTO because it does not fall within its competence. However, there is not unanimous agreement on the matter within Confindustria. For example, the pre-Doha document cites the case of the Italian textiles industry, which is particularly vulnerable to international competition, arguing that the liberalisation of trade by eliminating import quotas should be balanced by a reciprocity in market access conditions in the developing countries. This implicitly concerns the regulation of labour standards, which is one of the factors in the developing countries' competitiveness.

Unions: regulation should be extended to labour standards

The three main Italian trade union confederations - the General Confederation of Italian Workers (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Cgil), the Italian Confederation of Workers' Unions (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori, Cisl) and the Union of Italian Workers (Unione Italiana del Lavoro, Uil) - adopted a united stance on the Doha meeting, calling for WTO's regulatory role to be extended to social and environmental aspects. According to the union confederations, the liberalisation of trade should not induce firms to seek to increase their competitiveness through forms of 'social dumping'. For this reason, the elimination of tariffs and import quotas in order to help the poorer countries should be accompanied by a pledge by the latter to respect labour standards and environmental protection, on the basis of the rules established by other bodies like the ILO. This is a position in line with that taken at European level by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

The results of the Doha summit are deemed unsatisfactory by Cgil, Cisl and Uil - except for the decision taken as regards health - because of the meeting's failure to deal with social aspects. According to the unions, the principal goal of the WTO is to liberalise trade, and it views labour standards and environmental impact of economic development merely as costs. In the absence of rules, the reduction of costs may become one of the principal strategies for competitive success.


The regulation of competition has moved to the top of the agenda with the globalisation of the economy. Following the emergence of social themes in the debate and the protests by the anti-globalisation movement, the action of international bodies like the WTO has gained greater public visibility.

In the case of the Italian social partners, there seems to be substantial agreement that globalisation should be regulated. However, views differ on the form that this regulation should take. The differences centre on labour standards and on the environmental impact of economic development. Beyond the substance of these matters, the controversial issue is whether it should be the WTO that concerns itself with them.

At least to date, the regulation of social issues has been delegated to other bodies like the ILO. At the basis of this position is not only the belief inside the WTO that the liberalisation of trade will facilitate economic development, but also factors of a political nature. The introduction of 'social clauses' in trade treaties might give rise to conflicts among countries, especially the industrialised and the developing ones, with the risk that the decision-making process within the WTO will break down. (Marco Trentini, Ires Lombardia)

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