Labour rights in EU trade agreements: Towards stronger enforcement

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Series Details PE 698.800
Publication Date January 2022
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Since 2008, when the European Union introduced elaborate sustainable development provisions into its agreement with the Cariforum group of states, provisions on labour rights and the environment have become a central part of most of the EU's subsequent trade agreements, the one with South Korea (2011) being the first to contain a dedicated chapter. These provisions continue to evolve: for instance, recent agreements with some of the EU's developed partners, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, now include additional obligations on safety and health at work.

The enforcement of these provisions has, however, numerous weak points, as exposed through the extensive involvement of civil society in the monitoring of trade agreements. There have been isolated cases of weakened social protection, despite the provisions on sustainable development that seek to prevent this from happening. A more systematic and broader problem is that some countries have not ratified the relevant International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions and have failed to apply the ILO fundamental principles in their national legislation and practice. Whether the lack of recourse to withdrawal of trade preferences in cases of breaches contributes to the persistence of this problem, remains however disputed.

The recently concluded dispute settlement procedure with South Korea helps clarify the legal implications of the relevant provisions contained in this agreement, and possibly in others. The report drawn up by the panel handling the dispute highlights the obligations of the parties to apply the ILO fundamental principles irrespective of their impact on trade, but takes a soft approach towards the obligation to ratify outstanding ILO conventions.

Proposals by Member States and various stakeholders include more precise and effective mechanisms such as phased tariff reduction linked to compliance with sustainable development objectives. The possibility of trade sanctions has not gained traction, as it does not fit well with the EU's emphasis on consultations and dialogue with its trade partners.

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