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Labour

This section is for broad trade and labour issues. For a list of day to day articles related to labour, see this page.

The combined effect of structural adjustment programmes, increased capital mobility and the globalisation of production has resulted in mass job losses and precarious employment in many countries over the past 30 years. Attacks on social welfare, healthcare and education, as well as privatisations, high unemployment and strong arm tactics against trade union organising, have rolled back many of the hard-won fruits of struggle. In the name of global competitiveness, workers are set against each other in a race to the bottom which only the bosses can win.

International free trade and investment agreements are an important vehicle for the transfer of power from labour to capital. As transnational corporations are granted ever greater rights to trade and invest across the global economy, workers are increasingly cast as commodities in global value chains over which they have no control. The transnational capitalist elites that sit on top of these global networks of production can freely switch suppliers in search of lower labour costs or higher productivity, leaving behind a social devastation from which successive generations are often unable to recover.

The new generation of twenty-first century FTAs are now seeking to intensify this imbalance still further by removing the social standards and market regulations that have traditionally served to limit the power of transnational capital. The elimination of these regulatory ‘barriers’ to trade forms a central pillar of the most recent wave of FTAs, through which transnational corporations will be freed from any restrictions which might have allowed labour to participate in the benefits of trade or investment. Workers will create the wealth, and corporate elites will accumulate it.

One strategy previously advocated by trade unions in the global North was to press for social chapters in FTAs as a means of mitigating the worst effects of market liberalisation. This strategy is now widely recognised as ineffective, since such measures could never compensate for the devastation caused by bringing domestic enterprises into unequal competition with transnational corporations. The record of deindustrialisation and mass unemployment in the wake of trade liberalisations imposed on the peoples of Africa and Latin America shows just how high a price workers have paid for such policies. The negative experiences of US, Canadian and Mexican workers as a result of NAFTA are a reminder that workers in richer countries are also vulnerable.

Trade unions in the global South have long played an important role in mass movements of resistance to free trade and investment agreements. In Korea, many thousands of KCTU members participated in national mobilisations against both the US-Korea and EU-Korea FTAs. Workers in Central America actively opposed CAFTA, such as those from the state power and telecommunications sector in Costa Rica and education workers in Guatemala. Now Northern trade unions are joining these movements of resistance: all major European trade union federations have come out against CETA and TTIP, for example, just as the AFL-CIO called for a halt to the TPP negotiations for fear of the impact on US workers. The global union federation PSI has also spoken out against service liberalisation agreements such as TiSA, which threaten to undermine public services and public sector jobs alike.

Migrant workers’ associations have also formed part of the movement against FTAs. Free trade and investment agreements have resulted in social dislocations that have forced people from their farms, jobs, families and communities into exploitation as migrant workers, either internally within their own states or in other countries. At the same time, the growing number of FTAs that include provisions on temporary labour mobility have been condemned for endangering workers still further, driving people to migrate while still denying them basic rights in countries where their presence is highly precarious and often used by employers to undermine existing labour standards still further. Only when workers are no longer relegated to the status of commodities serving the economic strategies of capitalist elites can there be any hope of their liberation from such exploitation.

In the Asia Pacific region, unions have recently come together to strengthen their ability to intervene in international trade and investment related processes, by creating a network of trade unions called Unions for Trade Justice network. UTJ is coordinated by the Global Union Federations and aims to facilitate intervention by their affiliates and unions interested in challenging the free trade agenda and furthering the agenda of trade justice. UTJ’s formative document can be found here.

Contributed by John Hilary, and Susana Barria (PSI)

last update: January 2020


Union organizations from Africa, America, Asia and Europe meet in Paris
The Confederación General del Trabajo (Spain), the Union Syndicale Solidaires (France) and the Central Sindical e Popular Conlutas (Brazil) have extended an international invitation to all organizations that consider themselves part of the combative trade union movement and see the need for social transformation to an international trade union meeting to be held in Paris from 22 to 24 March in order to work towards the coordination of alternative trade-unionism on an international level
“Free trade agreements are, to some extent, an expression of neo-colonialism”
Interview with Lourdes Castro, chief officer of Grupo SUR and representative of Alop, Aprodev, Cifca and Oidhaco.
Labor action and inaction in Colombia free trade deal
As the media swarmed over the scandal surrounding the Secret Service’s alleged carousing with prostitutes in Colombia, another questionable financial transaction slipped quietly through the backdoor of hemispheric diplomacy.
AFL-CIO Joins Honduran Unions in Petitioning US Labor Department
This week the AFL-CIO joined the main Honduran trade unions to file a petition with the United States Department of Labor’s Public Office of Trade & Labor Affairs (OTLA) concerning the failure of the government of Honduras to effectively enforce its labor laws and comply with its commitments under the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA).
’Meet the new boss’: The rise of Colombia’s labor co-ops
According to labor-rights activists as well as a recent US State department report, many Colombian co-ops function as glorified temp agencies providing companies with cheap and docile non-union workers.
US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement: Labor issues
This Congressional Research Service (CRS) report examines three labor issues and arguments related to the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, signed on October 21, 2011: violence against trade unionists; impunity (accountability for or punishment of the perpetrators); and worker rights protections for Colombians.
Union says immigrants forced to accept pay below minimum wage
Chinese chefs working here are being asked to accept pay cuts or face losing their jobs, because of hundreds of Chinese chefs entering the country under the free trade agreement with China.
ÉTATS-UNIS-COLOMBIE - Clauses sociales : l’APC-TLC relance-t-il la discussion ?
Ce texte a comme principal propos de s’interroger sur la possibilité que les clauses sociales et environnementales des traités de libre échange deviennent un instrument important de la protection des droits du travail et des droits environnementaux en Amérique latine.
Race to the bottom: Maquiladoras, free trade, can of worms
Obama does not mention that FTAs traditionally have prompted US companies to transfer their manufacturing processes to countries with lower wages, rather than noticeably creating jobs in this country, writes COHA
Workers’ rights a part of trade deals
The Republicans’ refusal to reference the Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights in the US-Colombia free trade agreement’s implementing bill — and the Obama administration’s acquiescence to that refusal — is a fundamental flaw that is becoming increasingly apparent, writes US Representative Sander Levin