Workers’ rights and environmental standards still play second fiddle in the European Commission’s trade policy – rather, a ‘nice-to-have’ mentality clearly still prevails. That is the obvious conclusion from the trade agreements of the past decade – despite all the talk of a new generation of agreements since the Treaty of Lisbon. This is particularly apparent from the inadequately binding nature of the corresponding clauses in trade agreements.
The case of the agreement between the European Union and South Korea lays bare the inefficient, hesitant way in which the European Commission addresses breaches of workers’ rights in partner countries. Its approach of dispute resolution without any possibility of sanctions doesn’t work – as the progressive forces in the European Parliament have been criticising for years.
South Korea is one of the world’s most important producers of electronic products. Given Europe’s appetite for technology, it is hardly surprising that the Commission concluded a free-trade agreement with the republic back in 2011. The then trade commissioner Karel de Gucht hailed the agreement as the most ambitious ever concluded by the EU, citing aspects such as the adopted clauses on workers’ rights and environmental standards. In doing so, he followed the Commission’s narrative claiming that the economic trade aspects are on a par with social and environment sustainability.
In the relevant clauses of the agreement, the Korean government committed to respect, promote and implement the hitherto unratified core labour standards of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). As is well known, these core standards also include freedom of association. A dispute resolution mechanism was agreed in the event that either party should breach the mutual commitments on workers’ rights and environmental standards. It provides for government consultations and expert discussions and ends with the publication of an expert report. However, in reality, the example of South Korea shows how ineffective this mechanism is.
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