A better understanding of workers’ rights in trade deals improves trade policies. Geographical researchers evaluated the effectiveness of such provisions in three EU trade deals, and examined workers’ rights provisions in post-Brexit trade deals.
A better understanding of workers’ rights in post-Brexit trade deals improves trade policies. Though EU free trade deals include provisions for workers’ rights, the implementation of those provisions varies. Geographical researchers evaluated the effectiveness of such provisions in three EU trade deals, later expanding their work to examine workers’ rights provisions in post-Brexit trade deals.
Globally, workers’ rights are inconsistent and may offer limited protection to workers. Major trade blocs, such as the EU, can include clauses in trade agreements to extend protection of workers’ rights outside the EU. These are known as Trade and Sustainable Development Chapters (TSDs).
However, failure to understand the implementation and impact of those provisions can result in ineffective monitoring, insufficient resourcing, and failure to fully apply provisions in ways that secure rights. For example, TSD implementation in Moldova has faced "serious funding and institutional capacity problems" and challenges to enforcing labour rights including "high levels of informality and restrictions on the labour inspection system".
Professor Adrian Smith at Queen Mary University of London led a project to investigate how EU commitments to improving labour standards were operationalised globally, specifically looking at the impact of new EU free-trade agreements with South Korea, Moldova and Guyana.
The team conducted more than 120 interviews with state, business and civil society stakeholders around the world, and reviewed primary and secondary documentation from the three trade agreements. They evaluated negotiating processes, the implementation of agreements through institutional structures, and practices in the export sectors of the three countries.
The project found that the influence and impact of TSDs on workers lives varied according to the relative power of trading partners, the geopolitical context of each agreement, and by sector. It raised questions over whether EU agreements can be effective throughout complex value chains, identifying situations in all three countries where TSDs were not reflected in structures and practices. The team also noted weak, incomplete or substandard monitoring of TSD framework implementation in all three countries.
The research offered a series of policy recommendations to support better design and implementation of TSDs, such as pre-ratification agreements to establish domestic legal standards before implementing a trade deal.
The project team worked with the ITUC and ActAlliance in Brussels to establish a civil society/academic intelligence group called “DAGs for Change” (referencing the EU’s Domestic Advisory Groups which advise on TSD implementation).
The researchers also used the findings and analysis to collaborate with international organisations and governmental bodies, to inform relevant policy:
A contribution to an International Labour Organisation handbook, used by a range of practitioner communities and referenced in the European Commission’s policy statement in February 2018.
Critical debate in the European Parliament and international trade union groups, including directly informing the EC’s reform agenda led by the European Commission on the EU’s Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD) model.
Project team members were commissioned by the EC subcommittee on Human Rights to produce a report on GSP+ and labour standards in export processing zones, which was presented in Brussels in January 2018. The EU reviewed its TSDs after the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.
The project team also used their Brexit-focused outputs to contribute to work on labour provisions in post-Brexit UK trade policy for the Department for International Trade’s Trade and Sustainability Advisory Group. The research has also helped the Trade Justice Movement to formulate policy positions, and members of the project team worked with Amnesty International UK and the think tanks CLASS and the Women’s Budget Group to produce policy briefs on UK trade policy.
The group continues to produce publications and presentations that contribute to policy discussion on the topic of TSDs.
Beyond the Border project website
Beyond the Border project summary briefing
Governing Labour Standards through Free Trade Agreements: Limits of the European Union's Trade and Sustainable Development Chapters’. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies [open access]
Dr Smith’s presentation to the WTO Public Forum (2017): slides and audio
Working paper on labour standards in EU FTAs
Working paper on post-Brexit labour rights in trade agreements
Team blog post on post-Brexit provisions
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY-4.0), which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is cited.
How to cite
Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (2019) Working beyond the border. Case study. [online]
Available at: http://www.rgs.org/geography/advocacy-and-impact/impact/working-beyond-the-border/. Last accessed on: <date>
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