How do we take the interests of workers more seriously in future trade agreements?

Trade policy appears to be under greater public scrutiny than ever before at the moment. Populist political movements all over the globe are gaining political momentum based on the idea that trade policies (as part of bigger processes of globalisation) are not working for ordinary people. Many, including China’s President, Xi Jinping, are warning that the backlash against globalization looks likely to take the form of widespread nationalist protectionism – i.e. greatly increased barriers to goods and services from foreign countries. Such policies, it is argued, would reek havoc on many of the biggest ‘losers from globalisation’ by making their lives more expensive and reducing their opportunities to trade the fruits of their labour on global markets.

Is there an alternative vision which remains global in outlook, but takes more seriously the impact of trade policies on ordinary people across the globe? An important starting point for such an approach is to scrutinize current trade policy, to look at the ways in which it attempts to address the social dimensions of trade policy, to understand the limitations and deficiencies in these efforts, and to think about how they can be overcome.

Over the last couple of years I have been working with colleagues to study efforts within EU trade agreements to address the social dimensions of trade policy. DG Trade (the part of the European Commission responsible for trade policy) recognises that its trade agreements have come under increased public and civil society scrutiny in recent years and that a key element of the response to this is improving ‘sustainable economic, social and environmental conditions’ in the EU and trade partner countries. At the centre of the EU’s policy response are the Trade and Sustainable Development Chapters that all EU trade agreements contain. On the social side, the key provisions in TSD chapters are labour standards provisions which commit the EU and its trading partners to monitoring the social effects of trade agreements, and to engaging in dialogue and co-operation in relation to the worst labour abuses.

Our initial research findings suggest there are serious limitations in the functioning of these labour provisions, and that we need to think seriously about how these limitations can be overcome. On 2 March in Brussels, myself and my colleagues involved in this project are holding a policy seminar to present our research findings and to discuss possible ways of overcoming the limitations which we have identified. To find out more about the seminar, and to register a place for yourself, please see our registration page. I hope that these kind of discussions are a building block towards thinking about a progressive trade policy that puts workers’ interests at the centre of future trade policy-making processes.