European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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19 November 2015

Standards – instrument of global commerce in search of legitimacy

International technical standards, whether ISO or otherwise, are to be found everywhere in everyday life, often without our noticing it. They affect more than 80 per cent of commercial transactions and thus play a major role in the global economy. Besides the commercial dimension these standards also have a direct impact on health, safety and the environment, as illustrated by machine safety standards.

Nevertheless, in most cases, these standards are defined by experts meeting in low-key groups, from which civil society representatives (trade unions, NGOs, consumer organisations and so on) are absent. ‘The weak presence of civil society actors in standardization procedures raises the salient question of the legitimacy of the European and international standards that play such an increasingly important role in the context of globalisation’, according to the authors of a Policy Brief published by ETUI in November.

This document presents the main results of the INTERNORM project, which seeks to promote the involvement of civil society, especially the trade unions, in working out such standards.

Among the main obstacles to the participation of civil society representatives in the standardisation process, the authors focus on the lack of resources, in terms of both time and money. The world’s main standardisation body, the International Organization for Standardization, better known by the acronym ISO, has no fewer than 224 technical committees, in which more than 4,000 standardisation projects are discussed.

Self-evidently, it is not possible for civil society organisations, whose level of expertise and human resources are limited, to follow all this work, especially because participation is not free of charge. The authors also stress the risk of ‘exploitation’. The trade unions, in particular, fear being used as a democratic ‘accomplice’ in bodies dominated by the representatives of private enterprise, which often favour the route of (voluntary) standardisation over legislation, as it has the enormous advantage of not being binding.

For further information:

ETUI Policy Brief: The international standardisation arena and the civil society participation stakes: results of the INTERNORM project (October 2015)

HesaMag n°07: Standardization: what roles for the unions? (2013)

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