Labor Provisions in Trade Agreements (LABPTA): Introducing a New Dataset

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Global labor policy through trade has begun to receive growing attention with the inclusion of labor provisions in preferential trade agreements (PTAs). Until recently there has been a shortage of available data that would adequately capture the variation that exists with respect to the scope and stringency of labor provisions, preventing scholars and practitioners from addressing key questions about the design and effects of the trade‐labor linkage. This paper introduces a new dataset covering 487 PTAs from 1990 to 2015 coded against 140 distinct items pertaining to six main categories, presenting – to our knowledge – the most rigorous and fine‐grained mapping of labor provisions. It also offers the first systematic description of key trends in the design and occurrence of those commitments. Our study shows that labor provisions have not only expanded in terms of their content and participating countries but that labor provisions have, although to a varying degree, also become more stringent over time. The provisions that have across all PTAs increased most steadily are the ones related to the institutional framework set up for the monitoring and implementation of labor commitments, becoming more specialized and more inclusive of third party involvement over time.

Policy Implications

  • Policy makers should actively invest in high‐quality datasets and quantitative studies particularly regarding the socio‐economic impact of labor provisions to design better targeted and more effective labor provisions in their trade agreements. Such datasets also provide a new tool for knowledge sharing and the training of relevant constituencies so that they develop a better understanding of existing approaches and practices for their ongoing or future trade negotiations.
  • In line with the growing recognition of the importance of ex post evidence‐based assessment of the effectiveness of certain mechanisms, policy makers should also commit to the inclusion of provisions establishing regular impact assessment of the agreed labor provisions and their implementation.
  • While the Singapore Ministerial Declaration (1996) of the WTO designated the ILO as the competent body to deal with labor standards in the context of international trade, the role of the ILO in this area remains circumscribed. Given its capacities as standard setter, provider of technical assistance, and holder of key expertise and initiatives in this area, policy makers should consider reinforcing the role of the ILO in the trade‐labor linkage.
  • Labor provisions in trade agreements have gained momentum in recent years, including in countries once staunchly opposed to their introduction, a movement that is likely to be reinforced under the UN Sustainable Development Agenda, particularly SDG goal 8 on inclusive growth and decent work. In view of the growing proliferation of labor provisions and arising new challenges such as parallel jurisprudence, institutional overlap, lack of coordination, WTO members should consider the renewed discussion and possible introduction of a labor clause at the multilateral level.