EESC adds pressure on trade partners to respect ILO conventions

Corporate human right violations include involvement in child labour and conflict minerals. The Commission has been urged to set down new rules. [Shutterstock]

The European Economic and Social Committee almost unanimously adopted a resolution on Wednesday (15 February) calling on the EU to step up its efforts to give greater weight to labour and environment chapters – known as TSD chapters – in its free trade agreements.

This move adds to a rising number of calls on the EU to better monitor these chapters. Current politics around the matter in Brussels makes the timing of ratification of pending Asian free trade agreements more uncertain.

The EESC opinion calls for “effective enforceability of the commitments in TSD chapters, which is of crucial importance to the EESC”. Also: “TSD chapters must be given equal weight to those covering commercial, technical or tariff issues.”

The EU advisory body, which is acting as part of a consultation process launched by the EU enforcement of TSD chapters, brings together labour and employer organisations. For this precise reason, it has not found common ground on the issue of whether to sanction – or suspend commercial benefits to – trading partners in future trade deals. Instead, it calls on the European Commission to continue its research work and policy reflection initially set out in a discussion  paper in July 2017.

The EESC’s focus instead is on ensuring that domestic advisory groups made up of civil society representatives as part of the TSD chapters, such as the one with Korea or Canada, be better endowed. EU TSD chapters generally call on the signatories to abide by the International Labour Organisation’s eight core conventions – among others – and to respect a certain number of international environmental conventions, such as CITES on wildlife. The EU is now including the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change in the list of conventions tied to its free trade agreements.

The EESC resolution calls on EU FTA monitoring mechanisms to “be able to independently trigger investigations into violations of clear TSD commitments”, instead of relying, in the EU, on the commission to press for implementation. The EESC criticises the commission for not following up on domestic advisory group complaints.

Pressure on Vietnam

This resolution will be a further warning to countries such as Vietnam or Singapore, whose FTAs are awaiting ratification in the EU. Bernd Lange, chairman of the parliament’s trade committee, made it clear that the Vietnam agreement wouldn’t be agreed until Hanoi presents a clear roadmap for the ratification of these ILO conventions.

The EESC writes: “With respect to labour provisions, partner countries should demonstrate full respect of the eight ILO Core Labour Conventions before the conclusion of a trade agreement. If a partner country has not ratified or properly implemented these Conventions, or demonstrated an equivalent level of protection, the EESC recommends that a roadmap on solid commitments is sought, to be included in the TSD Chapter to ensure this be achieved in a timely manner.”

The Commission is pressing Vietnam to act on the three core ILO conventions it has not yet ratified. These cover freedom of association, the right to organise and collective bargaining, and the abolition of forced labour.

Singapore, which signed an FTA with the EU in 2014, still has no firm prospect of early ratification of the deal this year. The method of its ratification is still in question. Singapore happens not to have ratified ILO convention C105 on forced labour or C111 on discrimination at work. It pulled back 40 years ago from the forced labour convention.

Labour provisions and whaling

The resolution came as two European Parliament delegations travelled to Colombia and Peru this week to assess the state of play of their 2013 free trade agreement. The delegation included Lange and Helmut Scholz, from the left group GUE/NL.

In a letter to Giuseppe Giuliano, president of the EU domestic advisory group of the EU-Colombia/Ecuador/Peru Trade Agreement, trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström remained non-committal regarding a complaint filed last October by a local group against the Peruvian government for non-compliance with the pact’s labour provisions. “We are still analysing this complaint in detail, with a view to engage in a detailed dialogue with Peru on this matter,” Malmstöm wrote in her letter last week.

This week, the parliaments ‘Friends of Singapore’ group led by MEP Sorin Moisa was also in Singapore, discussing among others the state of play of the agreement.

The EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement inked last December has come under fire from animal rights and wildlife groups for not being tied to Japan abiding by international norms banning whaling. Liberal MEP Cecilia Wikström, who heads the committee of petitions in parliament, called on the commission for clarifications on a 2016 petition filed by a British MEP that called on whaling issues to be included in the pact. In her answer to Wikström in January,  Malmström wrote: “The European Commission does not consider Japanese whaling to be a trade issue.”

However, “the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) lists all great whales in its Appendix I, and bans all commercial trade in species, as well as related products, listed thereunder. As a result, the Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD) Chapter of the EU-Japan EPA will in the future provide for a platform to foster dialogue and joint work between the EU and Japan on environmental issues”, Malmström stated.