“Trade agreements are designed to encourage the movement of goods, labour and capital across borders. However without a seat at the negotiating table workers are not benefiting from these deals as they should,” said Ambet Yuson, BWI General Secretary at the opening activities of the Asia Pacific Regional Seminar on Labour Rights, Migration and Trade Agreements in Yangon, Myanmar. “These agreements are increasingly shaping how law and policy is being made. Multinationals have effectively monopolised this domain to their own advantage; it is critical therefore that BWI unions are at the forefront civili society movements on this issue, to ensure labour rights are protected.”
The seminar began with a discussion on how trade and investment agreements have evolved from the WTO era to the new generation of agreements, and the threats those agreements present to workers and their rights, as trade union members, as citizens, and as political movements. Discussion was closely linked to the impacts on BWI sectors, questions around migration and labour mobility, and sharing experiences on trade union engagement on these agreements.
And while some FTAs like the Trans Pacific Partnership have labour provisions, these provisions are not strong enough to counter the adverse impacts on workers, including informalisation, casualisation, precarious working conditions, increasing feminization, disparity in wages and benefits between local and migrant and between men and women workers.
Regional labour migration and the international agreements that underpin it was also a key topic. “The ASEAN economic integration is continuing apace, and workers are moving across borders in pursuit of work, however labour rights are not given the same degree of protection as investor rights”, said Fatimah Mohammad (UFES). Regional migration was also a key focus in update reports from BWI affiliates in South Korea (KFCITU) and Japan (from the BWI-JAC) in efforts to organise workers around the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. In both countries, increasing use of subcontracting and irregular work arrangements was negatively impacting on job security and health and safety outcomes.
It was also clear from the discussion that labour movements can impact these agreements. “For the first time in 30 years, a trade agreement has been impacted by working people, we won significant concessions on the ChAFTA surrounding labour mobility,” said Dave Noonan of CFMEU at the panel discussion on trade union engagement. Videos and pictures on campaign activities of CFMEU, FIRST Union of New Zealand, BYGGNADS of Sweden and KFCITU of South Korea served as strong inspiration for current and future struggles.
Participants highlighted the need for agreements that strengthen minimum labour standards at the regional level, stronger cooperation on health and safety issues, and a more effective labour dispute settlement mechanism, noting the much stronger DSM available for investors. “Rather than free trade agreements that pit workers against each other in a race to the bottom for labour rights,” remarked Yuson, “it’s time that workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining were given the same kinds of protection and remedies.”