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World Trade Organization

After WWII, the Havana Charter aimed to create a far reaching rule-based trade system that included several issues (investment, restrictive commercial practices (public and private), development, ...). It would also have led to the creation of the International Trade Organization. Employment and labour standards were part of Charter which stated that Parties would undertake, in the fields of trade and employment, to co-operate with one another and with the United Nations. Far from creating a supranational policy and legal framework, the Havana Charter would nevertheless have engaged states to expand trade and employment opportunities while maintaining fair labour standards and avoiding “unfair labour conditions, particularly in production for export”, through national and collective actions. The Havana Charter was abandoned and the international community built the international trading system around the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), which did not include labour related issues (except for article XX).

If the social dimension of the international trade order was never completely internationalised formally, there was an implicit consensus that contributed to pacify international and industrial relations as welfare states, in many parts of the world, developed social policies and labour laws. As this consensus faded in the 1970s, thereby lifting constraints slowing the globalization process, trade-labour issues resurfaced.

In the 1990s, the issue resurfaced at the multilateral level as the social and labour aspects have been discussed at the WTO. Developed countries made propositions towards the negotiation of trade related labour issues. Either part of a general agreement or through a TRIP-like agreement, the outcome of this debate has been is a refusal to discuss labour-related trade issues at the WTO (mostly from the South) and the confirmation that the ILO is the forum to address labour issues.

This issue is bound to resurface at the WTO as there are increasing pressures in favour of the recognition of economic, social, and cultural rights with regards to application of WTO trade obligations.


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