Can Trade Agreements Be a Friend to Labor?


  • Labour advocates have long complained that international trade agreements are driven by corporate agendas and pay little attention to the interests of working people
  • The preamble of the World Trade Organization Agreement mentions the objective of “full employment”, but otherwise, labour standards remain outside the scope of the multilateral trade regime.

Regional trade agreements:

  • Regional trade agreements have long taken labour standards aboard
  • The linkage in these agreements between preferential market access and adherence to core labour rights has become increasingly explicit
  • According to its proponents, the Trans-Pacific Partnership would have required Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei to improve their labour practices significantly—and Vietnam to recognize independent trade unions.

Developing countries have generally resisted:

  • Developing countries have generally resisted the inclusion of labour standards in trade agreements for fear that advanced countries will abuse such provisions for protectionist purposes
  • This fear can be justified when the requirements go beyond core labour rights and make specific wage and other material demands
  • The problem with trade agreements’ labour provisions is not that they are too restrictive for developing countries
  • It is that they may remain largely cosmetic, with little practical effect.

Care about labor standards:

  1. We may have a humanitarian desire to improve working conditions everywhere
  • We should have equal regard for workers in the domestic economy and those employed in export industries
  • In principle, we could expand enforceable labour clauses in trade agreements to cover working conditions in the entire economy
  1. Increasing the profile of governing bodies
  • If we are serious about improving working conditions everywhere, we should resort to experts on human rights, labour markets, and development, and raise the profile of the International Labour Organization
  • The objectives of both domestic labour unions and international human-rights advocates are served better through other means.

Way Forward:

  • Labor rights are too important to leave to trade negotiators alone. To date, labor clauses in trade agreements have remained a fig leaf, neither raising labor standards abroad nor protecting them at home. Real change would require a significantly different approach. We can start by treating labor rights as being on a par with commercial interests, rather than being an adjunct to them.

Source: Project Syndicate

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