Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Voice and Transparency in Aaronson's May 2015 paper "New Ideas to Empower US and European Workers in TTIP"

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to participate in an exciting survey administered by Susan Aaronson of the George Washington University Elliott School on how best to incorporate worker rights in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a free trade agreement being negotiated between the United States and the European Union.  One of Dr. Aaronson's primary projects is Make Trade Policy More Trusted, Transparent and Accountable at the GWU Institute for International Economic Policy.  Participating in the survey gave me and the other 22 respondents a chance to get some of our ideas and recommendations into trade and labor policy discussions while TTIP negotiations are ongoing.  Some of the ideas I had that made it into the final paper were (1) inclusion of provisions to address human trafficking; and (2) emphasis on utilization of creative international cooperation mechanisms like the Joint Public Advisory Committee which has been an innovative and effective mechanism for public involvement in the North American Commission of Environmental Cooperation.

Susan Aaronson's resulting paper Working by Design New Ideas to Empower US and European Workers in TTIP was released at a joint ILO-GWU conference held in Washington, DC on May 14, 2015.  In addition to the findings and recommendations resulting from the survey, the paper captures some of the misgivings many have about the possible negative impacts the TTIP could have on workers' rights, particularly on strong labor and social welfare protections in most European Union member states.  The paper also captures key differences in the US and EU approaches to labor rights in free trade agreements (See p. 7).

One of the most compelling recommendations from the survey is that labor, human and social welfare rights should be considered and incorporated throughout the text of the US-EU free trade agreement (instead of in just a single chapter) as a way to advance labor rights and increase employment (See pp. 12, 21).  Aaronson points to a proposed "regulatory coherence" chapter that could have a negative impact on worker rights as its aim is to "ensure that domestic regulations, such as environmental regulations, health and safety standards or workplace regulations do not distort trade" (p. 13).  She cites a 2015 ETUI policy brief written by Aida Ponce titled TTIP:  fast track to deregulation and lower health and safety protection for EU workers as an example of how a US-EU free trade agreement regulatory coherence chapter might lower workplace standards in the EU.  Two other proposed chapters that could have a negative impact on worker rights are the proposed services and investment chapters.

The paper also includes some other survey recommendations of note such as:
  • Improvements to the labor dispute process under TTIP (p. 22); 
  • Periodic (every 5 years) reporting on the TTIP's impact on the realization of ILO core labor rights (p. 23);
  • Specific exclusion of minimum or living wage laws, collective bargaining agreements, public procurement standards and public health and welfare regulations from the Investor-State Dispute provisions (p. 21);
  • Establishment of an independent Secretariat to resolve disputes, issue reports, conduct research and engage in innovative projects to promote worker rights (p. 23); and
  • Improved transparency in the TTIP negotiation process to allow the public to better understand how the agreement will expand employment and protect labor rights (p. 24).
The Working by Design paper takes a hopeful stance on ways the TTIP might be used to improve the lives in hundreds of millions of workers in the U.S. and Europe.  Nevertheless, I am left wondering if strong worker and social protections in almost every EU member state might be interpreted as trade distortions under a less than artfully crafted US-EU free trade agreement, leading to erosion rather than improvement of standards.

Finally, while I enjoyed the ILO-GWU conference (and picked up some useful tidbits of updated information) where the Working by Design paper was released, I wonder if the traditional conference format of 15-minute speeches and audience questions is the best way to come up with genuinely creative ideas.  In over 15 years of speaking at and attending international and comparative labor and employment conferences, only once have I attended an event that had an alternative format which captured and improved upon the ideas of the participants - the First Hispanic Forum on a Safe and Healthy Environment held in Orlando in 2003.  At the First Hispanic Forum on a Safe and Healthy Environment, participants were divided into 3 groups where we worked with facilitators to discuss and develop our ideas into a final set of recommendations which were then merged together in a single document on the final day of the Forum.  Maybe the next step in the Working for All work stream should be the First Global Forum on New Ideas and Innovative Strategies to Enhance Economic and Social Benefits in Trade Agreements - where the audience teaches the speakers rather than the other way around.