The last few decades have seen heated debates over the issue of international labour standards. As governments sign up to international trade agreements, some of their constituencies call for the inclusion of labour agreements that would oblige them to abide by certain standards protecting workers' rights. Some oppose this demand on the grounds that it would interfere with free trade; others object because they feel labour standards may be applied unfairly, in ways that would harm the workers they are intended to help. This paper reviews the economic and political arguments for international labour standards, particularly those found in the global North. It concludes that while there are many reasons why workers in the global South may be suspicious of initiatives coming from the North, there are strong reasons to support the demand for international labour standards as a means for workers to organise and an opportunity to build cross-border solidarity. In the end, it is not so much the standards themselves, but the way in which the fight for the standards happens and the way in which they are used that matters most. The struggle for labour standards should be seen as a tool to aid workers to organise, rather than as a solution to poor working conditions.
IDS Working Paper 250, Sussex, UK; IDS, ISBN 1 85864 884 X, 38 pp.