European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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19 September 2017

Can trade and investment agreements provide decent work?

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The ETUI debate on trade and investment agreements took place at the European Economic and Social Committee on the 12th of September and was chaired by the ETUI General Director Philippe Pochet.

ETUI Senior researcher and Head of Unit “European Economic, Employment and Social Policy” Martin Myant addressed the question by noting that there is a growing tendency to place labour clauses within trade agreements, but this trend is not necessarily beneficial to workers or trade unions. Labour provisions in trade agreements appear to have little impact when it comes to providing decent work except for countries which are already reforming.

Professor Adrian Smith of Queen Mary University of London argued that working conditions and workers’ lives are impacted by a range of factors including the forms of global value chain integration in the dominant export sectors in each country, and specific political contexts. His presentation was based on findings from a research project examining EU trade agreements with Moldova, South Korea and Guyana/Cariforum. Overall, the diversity of sectoral and country cases illustrates the limitations of a ‘one size fits all’ approach to labour provisions in trade agreements and in dealing with labour conditions in global value chains. A positive outcome will depend on whether EU trade agreements can effectively govern the complexities of global value chains.

Damian Raess, Assistant Professor at the University of Bern and the University of Reading argued that labour clauses are good for economic development. He referred to the results of a research project examining labour provisions in 487 preferential trade agreements in 165 countries. “Fear that enforceable labour standards would be abused by high‐income countries for protectionist purposes is a myth”, he said. In fact low-income countries benefit from signing preferential trade agreements with labour provisions, particularly when they are accompanied by deep cooperation mechanisms. The research also showed that trade unions have an important role to play, both during the negotiations and implementation phase.

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