Although the international community largely agrees on the need to meet labour standards, the agreement does not deal with what these standards should be. Forced labour and slavery are almost everywhere considered repugnant, but other labour protection measures, which are considered vital in the world`s richest countries, are not widely observed elsewhere. Some Americans may fear that the inclusion of enforceable labour standards in trade agreements could open the United States to accusations of not enforcing the ILO`s core standards and exposing them to possible trade sanctions. But U.S. civil rights and labor laws already contain the fundamental safeguards required by ILO conventions. There is a clear consensus that all WTO member governments are committed to tightening the fundamental norms of internationally recognized freedom of association, not resorting to forced labour, child labour and discrimination in the workplace (including discrimination on the basis of sex). The answer is this: if there is a race to the bottom, should countries trade only with countries with similar labour standards? At a more complex legal level, for example, the question arises as to whether the standards of international labour organizations and WTO agreements can be applied in a manner consistent with WTO rules. Moreover, all of these points have a fundamental question: whether trade measures could be used to impose labour standards or whether it was simply an excuse for protectionism? Similar questions are being asked with regard to standards, i.e. health and plant health measures and technical barriers to trade. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney denies that the application of labour standards can have protectionist effects.
ILO standards aim to protect the interests of workers in low- and high-income countries. The WTO and the United States strongly defend intellectual property (IP) rights and impose trade sanctions when developing countries violate those rights. Extending equal protection to workers` rights, he says, cannot be protectionist. On the other hand, many developing countries believe that the issue has no place in the WTO. They argue that the campaign to introduce labour issues to the WTO is in fact an offer from industrialized countries aimed at undermining the comparative advantage of low-wage trading partners and undermining their ability to raise standards through economic development, particularly if it impedes their trade capacity. They also argue that the proposed standards may be too high for them to achieve at their level of development. These nations argue that efforts to introduce labour standards in multilateral trade negotiations are nothing more than a pretext for protectionism.