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Sustainable Development and Workers’ Welfare

Sustainable Development and Workers’ Welfare

Reforming trade policy in the EU and the UK

The European Union is connected with countries across the globe by a web of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). Professor James Harrison’s research identified serious issues with how these trade deals protect workers’ rights and ensure sustainable development.

By building links with trade unions, business and civil society groups in the EU and trade partners, Professor Harrison’s work has helped to reform how the EU implements the standards set out in its Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD) chapters. Now the United Kingdom has left the EU and is developing its own FTAs, Professor Harrison has advised the UK government and UK-based trade unions, and business and civil society groups on how UK FTAs can effectively promote workers’ rights and sustainable development.

The challenge

Trade policy in the EU and other countries has, in recent years, come under serious public scrutiny for its failure to contribute to broader societal objectives including the welfare of workers and sustainable development. But there has been a dearth of empirical research which investigates the problems with current approaches and how they can be improved in the future.

Our approach

Professor Harrison and his colleagues collected detailed empirical data from three current EU trade deals, covering the Caribbean, South Korea and Moldova.

They first examined the effects of labour and sustainable development provisions in EU trade agreements at a national level in these very different contexts. This was accompanied by an exploration of their impacts in relation to particular industries; sugar in Guyana, automobiles in South Korea and clothing in Moldova. This research found that the EU’s one size fits all approach was insufficient to address the diverse issues faced in different trading partner and industry contexts. Instead, Harrison and his colleagues argued that specific labour and sustainable development issues in each trade relationship must be prioritised by EU officials, who needed to become more knowledgeable and committed to the TSD agenda.

They also argued that monitoring and complaints processes created through the TSD chapters were ineffectual and required strengthening in various ways, including by making corporations more directly accountable for TSD issues. Furthermore, the civil society structures, viewed as a central element of the TSD chapters, were hampered by unclear aims, insufficient resources and a range of operational failings. More resources, precise objectives and better coordination of institutions were required to remedy this.

Our impact

Professor Harrison’s research has impacted both EU and UK trade policy. In the EU, Harrison’s research has led to important reforms of TSD chapters and the creation of a new civil society network. The Trade and Sustainable Development Group aims to connect civil society groups and influence future EU trade policy. A number of Professor Harrison’s proposals appeared in the reform package of TSD chapters adopted by the European Commission in February 2018. These included better resources for TSD institutions, more engagement between civil society and inter-governmental institutions, and a move away from one size fits all implementation of TSD chapters. These reforms will make a difference to trade relations with EU partners such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the Caribbean, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

In the UK, Professor Harrison has informed government, parliamentary, civil society, trade union and business groups in their formulation of trade policy for the post-Brexit world. In particular, Harrison’s research has led to unions, employers, environmental groups and other civil society groups being aligned in their priorities for trade to support effective enforcement of workers' rights, promote sustainable development.

The Labour Party also relied on the findings of Harrison’s research to conclude that TSD chapters have not been effective and that binding social clauses are needed in future UK trade agreements.

Read Professor Harrison and the Trade and Sustainable Development Group’s policy brief for the European Parliament

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