MEPs slam labour rights in EU-Korea trade deal review

The European Parliament in session in Strasbourg. [European Parliament]

MEPs voted today (18 May) to support a motion for a resolution on the outcomes of a five-year-old free trade agreement with South Korea, which praises the agreement for its positive effect on trade and integration between the two countries. But it also calls on the Commission to act on labour right violations in the Asian country.

The EU South Korea chapter on labour and environment enjoins the parties to respect core International Labour Organisation conventions. Seoul has not ratified all core ILO conventions.

MEPs say that there are “still cases of violation of freedom of association, including troubling examples of imprisonment of trade union leaders, and interference in negotiations, which should rest within the autonomy of the bargaining partners”. Recent revisions of labour law undertaken by Korea’s outgoing government has led to an intensification of the repression over labour and civil society, critics say.

The report “urges the Commission to take up formal consultations with the Korean Government” and to “prepare adequate measures in case of breaches”.

Since its entry into force five years ago the free trade deal with the South Korea generated a 47% increase in EU exports to Korea, a performance said to have exceeded expectations.

The resolution drafted by MEP Adam Szejnfeld (EPP, Poland) also points to a number of shortcomings in addressing technical barriers to trade, such as a direct transport clause, a clause on repaired goods and certificate-related issues, as well as in the area of intellectual property rights. Korean phyto-sanitary measures also harm EU beef and pork exports, MEPs deplore.

Malmström commits to talking to Seoul

“I agree that Korea needs to do more on trade and sustainable development, particularly labour rights,” EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström admitted in her address to the plenary on Wednesday (17 May). “To this end we need to use all the available channels that we have to insist on the need for progress.”

Civil society mechanisms established in the deal, and the government-to-government dialogue did not suffice to induce Korea to keep its promises. “It is not enough,” agreed Malmström.

MEP Alessia Mosca, S&D spokesperson on trade, said that “a failure to act on the side of the Commission could undermine the effectiveness of Sustainable Development Chapters in EU’s trade agreements, and of the EU trade policy in general”. The centre-left political group criticises the absence of sanctions foreseen in the deal’s sustainable development chapter in case of non compliance

Cecilia Malmström has said she is waiting for a Korean government to enter into office in June 2017. “This would be a matter of priority with the new government” she promised. “Hopefully they will be more open to cooperation and more forthcoming to human rights. There are indications that this is the case,” she added.

Elusive trade pact amendments

Malmström said the Commission would submit amendments to the agreement. “We have indicated to Korea that we will look at legal means if necessary if we do not see progress on these issues,” the trade commissioner said.

Korea has indicated it was interested in including an investment protection chapter investment in the agreement. That matter is turning out to be complicated.

MEPs say such a chapter cannot be discussed before the difficulties in the sustainable development chapter are addressed. In addition, the parliament’s resolution also says that using investment arbitration – also known as ISDS – is out of the question. However, Seoul is hesitant about the EU’s plans to replace private arbitration with the ICS, or a system of pre-nominated judges, in its new free trade agreements.

“This makes rapid progress on an amendment package unlikely,” concluded Malmström.

The European Parliament resolution – a non binding document – was adopted by a majority of 418 MEPs on Thursday.

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