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Working Beyond the Border: European Union Trade Agreements and International Labour Standards

A research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council

Recent high profile incidents such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza Building in Bangladesh demonstrate the need for workers’ rights to be better protected and enhanced across the globe. Sustainable development clauses in international trade agreements provide one mechanism by which major trading blocs, such as the European Union, are attempting to do this.

This project investigates this commitment of the EU to improve labour standards beyond its borders. It focuses on the EU pledge “to put more of its commercial weight behind efforts to promote social standards and decent work in bilateral and multilateral trade negotiations”, which has been trumpeted in the labour standards provisions contained in “new generation” free trade agreements (FTAs) as a key policy mechanism for promoting labour standards in third countries.

This project investigates the impact of these new FTAs on workers in third countries. Since the 2011 FTA with South Korea, all new EU FTAs contain a specific chapter on ‘Trade and Sustainable Development’, with commitments to respect core labour standards (freedom of association, eliminating forced labour and abolishing child labour).

The agreements also contain institutional mechanisms to monitor and review compliance with those standards, including a joint committee of representatives of the two parties to the agreement, an independent body of experts to handle complaints, and a civil society monitoring mechanism.

This model is not a ‘hard law’ mechanism where sanctions are used to force compliance. Nor is it a ‘soft law’ mechanism because states are making commitments to take action, and their performance is monitored and reviewed. Presently there is limited research which directly investigates what the impact of this new model is on workers in countries that have signed a ‘new generation’ FTA with the EU. This research project therefore fills this important gap.

A summary of the main research findings from the first stage of the project can be accessed here [pdf] or viewed below:

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