Sunday, March 4, 2012

Labour conditions, globalisation and WTO - IFA's the way forward?

In this piece in the Social Europe Journal Siglinde Hessler argues for the adoption of International Framework Agreements as a strong instrument to improve labour conditions worldwide.
"International Framework Agreements (IFA) are important in international labour regulation. As the globalization of production and markets is increasing, an international regulation of labour is strongly needed. Existing instruments such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles Concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy and the great number of ILO conventions among others have set important marks in the debate, but still lack recognizable success as they lack the power of sanctions. Furthermore, the growing number of voluntary and unilateral declarations on social standards, which are part of the Corporate Social Responsibility strategy of companies, have not attained concrete results as they lack binding force.
IFAs are a relatively new in international labour regulation, operating at company level. They are agreed to between companies and workers’ representatives, such as Global Union Federations and/or works councils, and they define fundamental labour standards – primarily, the ILO core conventions – for a company’s plants worldwide. Furthermore, they recommend the standards to the suppliers of the enterprises which have concluded the IFA. In contrast to other instruments of international labour regulation, IFAs have a strong binding character: As they refer to international norms such as the ILO core conventions and as they are agreed by company and workers’ representatives, they involve workers’ representation in the implementation and monitoring of the IFA. Furthermore, since IFAs are to some extent a reaction by companies to public pressure to respect labour rights, companies try to avoid the negative publicity arising from cases where labour rights are disrespected."
Are IFAs the answer to the issue of global labour rights in the context of WTO? there are two opposing views about bringing in labour issues within the framework of the WTO. While the proponents assert that the WTO should actively engage in addressing concerns of "poor labour conditions" in many countries within the WTO framework as an ingredient of fair international trade, the opponents of this linkage assert that it is essentially a national policy question and would be a technical barrier to trade if brought within the confines of the WTO. They also argue that it would result in a "function creep" for the WTO which would essentially be addressing issues extraneous to trade and be a protectionist tool in the hands of the developed world. It is in this context that IFAs gain prominence. Is it the middle path to achieve global labour standards while addressing the issues of  domestic sovereignty and policy space?

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