[Excerpt] Labor practices have become a part of many international trade agreements. In response to growing interest in international labor standards, the Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) engaged the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to recommend a method to monitor and evaluate labor conditions in a country. The focus was on five labor standards: (1) Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining; (2) Forced or Compulsory Labor; (3) Child Labor; (4) Discrimination; and (5) Acceptable Conditions of Work. NAS developed an approach which included formulating indicators for each of the five labor standards, creating a database of sources of reliable empirical information for assessing these indicators, and suggesting a method for assessing and monitoring compliance that includes a matrix framework for graphically presenting assessments.
The University of Michigan, in consultation with ILAB, evaluated this approach by having 3-person expert panels apply it to assessing and monitoring compliance in three countries. The panel members independently assessed the indicators in terms of level of compliance with international standards (“some problems,” “more extensive problems,” or “severe problems) and direction of change (“steady state,” “improving,” or “worsening”). Each panel then convened to discuss their assessments and seek to resolve differences in those assessments.
Observation and analysis of this experience revealed challenges in applying this approach and potential modifications that could improve its operationalization. For most of the indicators, there was not agreement among the independent assessments by the panel members. Information was lacking or outdated for many of the indicators and, when present, was usually not definitive. Panelists raised a number of suggestions for changes in the indicators and matrix approach, more generally. WebMILS, the database created to support such assessments, was seen as a useful resource, although concerns were raised about limiting information sources to those that are available on the Internet. There were also suggestions for updating and modifying the version of WebMILS that was operational during the period of the evaluation. The panelists felt that the process they followed (independent assessments followed by a group meeting) was effective, although there was some feeling that more training might be helpful before undertaking the independent assessments.
The evaluation experience also focused on the challenges of moving from an assessment of individual indicators using the matrix formulation to overall conclusions about a country’s compliance with international labor standards. The formulation of discrete indicators for each labor standard provides a basis for a more explicated or transparent discussion of compliance. But the proposed method does not provide guidance for integrating conclusions about individual indicators into a broader assessment of a country’s compliance with international standards. This issue raises important questions about the relative importance of different indicators and whether priorities could be established to direct such an effort.