Labour, Jobs and Employment – Harmonization of labour laws, gender gap, unemployment, etc.

[op-ed snap] Can trade agreements be a friend to labour?


Mains Paper 3: Economy | Development & employment

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Less focus on labour welfare in international trade negotiations and need for more equitable rules for labour welfare


International trade agreements and labour welfare

  1. Labour advocates have long complained that international trade agreements are driven by corporate agendas and pay little attention to the interests of working people
  2. 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 focus on labour welfare

  1. Regional trade agreements have long taken labour standards aboard
  2. The linkage in these agreements between preferential market access and adherence to core labour rights has become increasingly explicit
  3. 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

Resistance by developing nations

  1. 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
  2. This fear can be justified when the requirements go beyond core labour rights and make specific wage and other material demands
  3. The problem with trade agreements’ labour provisions is not that they are too restrictive for developing countries
  4. It is that they may remain largely cosmetic, with little practical effect

Need to care about labour standards

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

Way Forward

  1. Labour rights are too important to leave to trade negotiators alone
  2. To date, labour clauses in trade agreements have remained a fig leaf, neither raising labour standards abroad nor protecting them at home
  3. We can start by treating labour rights as being on a par with commercial interests, rather than being an adjunct to them
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