Governance Spillovers of Labour Provisions in Free Trade Agreements

by Susan Ariel Aaronson (George Washington University)

IIEP Working Paper 2017-2

Most people know that governments such as the US, EU, and Canada use labour rights provisions in trade agreements to improve labour rights. They believe that policymakers in the developing world will be willing to improve labour rights governance with the incentive of the trade agreement. But in this paper, Aaronson argues that these provisions have broader and equally important spillover effects upon governance. These provisions:

  • empower workers and other citizens;
  • facilitate a feedback loop between the developing country government and its citizens on a broad range of issues affecting trade;
  • promote wage and income equality, which is conducive to development, social stability and democracy;
  • help policy-makers to better integrate labour rights with other public policies (such as fiscal policy, anti-corruption policies, or criminal laws); and
  • can help citizens and policy-makers gradually improve governance, increase productivity and advance social cohesion in the community.

Aaronson used a comparative case study approach, examining both the language and studies of the effects of the provisions. For example, she finds that since 2005, U.S. agreements have included provisions in the labour rights chapter related to procedural guarantees and public awareness. The provisions require parties to encourage public participation in the development of labour rights policies. They also require that all persons have “appropriate access to tribunals”, that the “proceedings are fair, equitable, and transparent … open to the public”, give all parties the right to seek review, and educate their public about the law. Taken in sum, these provisions could empower workers (on the demand side of labour rights) through rules on public awareness, public participation, and due process rights. The EU and Canada have begun to adopt similar policies.

Aaronson provides several examples of improved governance. In Guatemala, policymakers learned to coordinate labour rights and fiscal policy so that companies could not get subsidies or avoid taxes if they were found to violate labor rights. Mexican officials learned to protect the rights of Mexican guest workers in the U.S. In 2013, with help from U.S. and Mexican civil society groups, guest workers came together to form the Sinaloa Temporary Workers’ Coalition to defend the rights of guest workers in Mexico and abroad. In 2014, the group complained to the Mexican Ministry of Labor regarding recruitment fees. The Ministry investigated and found 27 violations of the law, resulting in fines. In this example, Mexicans held their government accountable for violations of the law at home.

Aaronson notes that no one has yet done a study as to whether these provisions and consultative bodies actually empower workers. Nonetheless, in a 2016 study of trade and labour rights, the ILO noted that “the impact of labor provisions depends crucially on, first, the extent to which they involve stakeholders, notably social partners such as unions and NGOs.” Workers who are aware of their rights and able to challenge executives and government officials’ decisions are empowered. Over time, empowered workers can promote greater income equality through improved productivity and better share in profits through wage increases. Some analysts argue that this process can advance development, social cohesion and democracy, and can ensure that more people meet their potential. Moreover, these provisions may help to legitimize trade agreements and help them to gain a base of public support.

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