Photo: Charles Roffey
Globalization has exposed workers, their employment and wages to the dynamics of the international economy and global competition. At the same time, it has allowed (or forced) them to be more mobile, both sector-wise and geographically.
Globalization also has posed diverse challenges to national socio-economic policies, including labour policies, as the boundaries of “national jurisdiction” and national policy spaces have become less clear.
Within this mix, regional labour and migration rights remain an understudied policy area. Recent UNU-CRIS research, published in the International Journal of Manpower (Vol.32, No. 3, 2011), presents one of the first systematic accounts of the development of regional socio-economic policies. This research highlights the considerable opportunities for new policy initiatives and regional labour policy coordination, and contributes some of the building blocks for a cross-regional analysis.
The need to “reinforce the regional level” is gaining increasing momentum as a necessary response to contemporary socio-economic challenges. However, regional integration agreements have not always been seen as a way to promote labour standards and rights.
Labour standards represent the rules that govern how people are treated in the working environment. They include basic human rights, respect for health and safety, and remuneration, amongst other rights.
At the international level, labour standards have been incorporated into various conventions and recommendations. Notably, a number of core enabling rights have achieved international consensus, in the form of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) core labour standards (CLS).
However, such basic labour rights and standards have not been applied uniformly across different world regions. As Braithwaite and Drahos (2000) point out, global competition (particularly since the 1980s) in low-cost labour markets, combined with labour market deregulation, has undermined workers’ rights and standards in many places. Moreover, within the World Trade Organization (WTO), developing countries often oppose formally linking labour standards with multilateral trade agreements, fearing that measures aimed at imposing labour conditions are “protectionism in disguise”.
At the regional level, the question of “how can regional trade and integration arrangements stimulate actual respect and implementation of core labour standards?” requires ongoing attention.
Labour clauses in free trade agreements (FTAs), economic partnership agreements and general systems of preferences are gaining currency. Many regional FTAs (particularly those originating in the USA or EU) now include clauses requiring the respect of labour standards and the protection of internationally recognized workers’ rights.
The way these clauses are formulated and implemented is, however, dependent on the countries and regions involved. Regional organizations should play a role.
Migration also constitutes a fundamental part of regional integration processes. Different regions pursue diverse arrangements to regulate the movement of workers in order to enhance economic and social development. Such regional organizations facilitate or restrict, to varying degrees, migrant workers’ rights of entry, residence and access to employment, social security and mutual recognition of qualifications.
So, to what extent are existing regional associations developing effective policies in response to the globalization of labour and migrant worker rights?
A comparison of different world regions — Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia-Pacific — offers useful insights.
Regional labour rights and migration regimes are being shaped in different world regions, albeit with different speeds and prospects. These are difficult to compare, given the marked differences in design and scope of the underlying regional arrangements and instruments.
In Europe, the most comprehensive example, regional economic integration through the European Union (EU) has delivered positive results through increased economic growth and poverty reduction. Social cohesion has also strengthened, by combining economic integration with flanking social measures. This has facilitated the development of harmonized standards governing occupational health and safety, gender equality and non-discrimination.
Developments in the Americas have been more fragmented. The longest-standing regional FTA, the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA), has provided the model for most other regional agreements. Whilst the labour side agreement to NAFTA enumerates eleven basic labour principles, it only commits parties to enforce domestic laws. Initiatives such as the high-level Andean Labour Advisory Council (ALAC) and MERCOSUR’s Tripartite Social-Labour Commission, whilst offering potential, have delivered few practical achievements.
The situation in Africa is similarly diverse. The Southern African Development Community (SADC), the sub-regional trade union organization, the East African Trade Union Council (EATUC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have all pursued different approaches to strengthening regional coordination on labour rights. Whilst levels of effort and ambition have differed, some attempts have been made by these sub-regional groups to promote labour issues, the harmonization of laws and the ratification of international labour standards.
Within the Asia-Pacific, labour rights are not prominent in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), but the ASEAN Trade Union Council (ATUC) is pushing for a social charter and framework for the protection of migrants. More broadly, the Asia Pacific Economic Community (APEC) has limited labour issues to discussions on human resources, productivity, training and education.
Against this backdrop, a regional comparison of migrant workers’ rights also suggests there is little correlation between the share of migration a particular region receives and policy coordination. Significant differences in regional instruments and policies are apparent.
In Europe, for example,:
In the Americas, different initiatives and levels of coordination are apparent:
In Africa, the situation is equally diverse:
In the Asia-Pacific, formal regional integration is less developed when compared to other regions:
These differing levels of commitment on migrant worker and labour rights can be summarized in the map and table below.
What drives regional labour policies? How can policies be improved?
Globalization poses challenges for national socio-economic policies in general and for labour policies in particular. The regional governance level combines a sufficiently large scale to warrant effective policies, with the possibility to design regimes that are better adapted to particular socio-economic, political and cultural realities compared to global arrangements.
Research has explored some of the correlations between the depth of regional policies and some indicators that characterize regional integration processes (such as intra-regional trade shares, trade intensity, immigration shares and cultural distance).
Regional socio-economic policies are gaining importance in different world regions, as labour and migrant workers’ rights become increasingly present on political agendas. However, the speed with which regional policies are shaped is varied, and generally low: we are facing a long-term process marked by differing ambition levels.
Taking data constraints and conceptual challenges into account, our research can, nonetheless, contribute some of the building blocks of a cross-regional analysis, including that:
What is clear is that labour policies cannot be dealt with at the national level alone. Deeper regional policies on labour rights should be formulated at the regional level to complement trade-based arrangements already in place. Considerable opportunities thus exist for policy makers to analyse in-depth how and why regional policy coordination and policy making is being pursued differently in different regions. Only then will we be able to grasp its potential from a longer term perspective.
This article is based on Deacon, B., De Lombaerde, P., Macovei, M.C. and Schröder, S. (2011), “Globalization and the emerging regional governance of labour rights”, International Journal of Manpower, Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 334-365.