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Entering a new era of economic integration and free trade: the importance of eradicating forced labour and human trafficking

created Oct 29, 2015 08:11 PM

By Maurizio Bussi, Director of ILO Decent Work Technical Support Team for East and South-East Asia and the Pacific, 29 October 2015

The issues related to forced labour and human trafficking in the present context of trade liberalization and economic integration are wide and complex. A global labour market is rapidly emerging in which the rights and welfare of workers are becoming more interrelated through the closer linkages that are being created by global production systems and increased capital mobility. This is particularly relevant to the Asia Pacific region which maintains a global primacy with respect to the size and production capacity of its manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

One key aspect of these unfolding trends is the renewed emphasis on efforts at all levels to identify, manage, mitigate and prevent forced labour and trafficking issues particularly when they are directly or indirectly linked to trade agreements and global supply chains. The recently concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement members agreed to “adopt and maintain in their laws and practices the fundamental labour rights as recognized in the ILO 1998 Declaration.”

Preventing countries from using labour, environmental and other laws to give their industries an unfair advantage is a tricky exercise, which requires setting the right common standards for how goods should be produced. Trade deals shouldn't encourage a race to the bottom when it comes to environmental and labour protections; instead, they should push for standards that protect the long-term interests of workers and communities. The TPP deal has the potentials to do that in several areas, including more demanding and enforceable provisions on minimum wages, collective bargaining and forced labor, sustainable fishing and logging.

It's not clear yet, though, whether negotiators struck the right balance between competing industries' interests in other areas, such as automobiles, where the deal may help Asian automakers with suppliers in China (not a TPP signatory) at the expense of parts manufacturers in North America.

Another important aspect of these unfolding dynamics is the evidence that there is a growing “market for social responsibility and social progress” which is sufficiently vibrant (and economically rewarding) to persuade firms to commit themselves to environmentally and socially responsible behavior. The question to be examined here is what could motivate states to seek (and receive) a similar reward from the “market” for their commitment to fundamental workers’ rights and more specifically on forced labour and trafficking issues.

The first set of issues to be addressed relates to the notion of why states can or should get involved in that market. As it seems to appear in this initial stages of the policy-making phase the answer is not only in their economic interests but also in the interest of the market and its equilibrium.

The second matter is how information on forced labour and trafficking might be available to consumers to motivate states to act. In practice the phenomenon has a transnational nature. Consumers interested in ethical purchasing are by no means limited to one set of countries, and their demand is almost by definition origin-neutral. Thus, any formula which left each state to deal exclusively with its own consumers would likely to be inefficient at best and actually counterproductive in most cases. In other words the information supplied should have a correspondingly transnational character, best attached to some sort of multilateral framework negotiated by participating countries as it is somehow envisaged by the TPP.

Ancillary to the design of an appropriate framework is a third issue of what information needs to be made available to consumers to satisfy their interests and ethical standards. Should it be limited to informing them about the most fundamental aspects of workers’ rights or might it be more general, referring to (and even creating) a decent work standard of some kind?

These policy dilemmas remain very much part of ongoing efforts aimed at ensuring the universal and effective diffusion of the rules of the game that aim to govern a more robust framework based social justice for a fair globalization.


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