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12 Mar 2018


Protecting labour rights in PTAs: the role of trade unions (and more)

SNSF Professor Damian Raess has just published an article entitled “Protecting labor rights in PTAs: the role of trade unions, left governments, and skilled labor” (co-authored with Andreas Dür, and Dora Sari) in The Review of International Organizations (see abstract below).

The paper, in open access, is available here

The paper demonstrates that strong trade unions have played (and continue to play) a crucial role in ensuring trade agreements contain more and more far-reaching labour provisions. It is the first paper to show such an association across time and space. While intuitive, it is not necessarily an obvious finding. People might think, and rightly so, that the EU and the US (and perhaps Canada) are the entities that have always inserted labour provisions into their trade agreements in recent years, irrespective of, for instance, the political orientation of governments which have switched back and forth between left- and right-wing. In other words, there is path-dependency in the politics of the trade-labour linkage involving those countries. The study, by controlling for the EU and the US in the regression analysis, excludes this alternative explanation.

We do not find an independent effect for left-leaning governments; we only find that left-wing governments reinforce the influence of trade unions. In other words, in terms of the key collective actor, the main driver of the inclusion and thus the protection of labour rights in trade agreements is the labour movement.

One implication of our finding on the influence of trade unions is that the politics of the trade-labour linkage remains highly politicised. It has been suggested that fundamental labour rights have developed considerable normative power and that labour provisions in trade agreements, especially in the EU context, have achieved the status of an “unobjectionable norm” and have, accordingly, become more of an issue of human rights championing. Our results suggest otherwise: unless a militant labour movement champions the trade-labour linkage, labour provisions are unlikely to feature prominently in trade agreements. Ongoing discussions on the possible strengthening of labour provisions in trade agreements in the US and the EU in the context of the NAFTA renegotiation and the review of Trade and Sustainable Development chapters in EU trade agreements, respectively, where trade unions are pushing for the broadening of the scope of issues incorporated in trade agreements and/or more efficient, sanctions-based dispute settlement mechanisms reminds us that class conflict remains a pertinent cleavage in the contemporary politics of protecting labour rights in trade agreements.