No one left behind: How trade can fairly contribute to economicg growth and decent work for marginalised communities

26 Sep 2017 14:30h - 15:30h

Event report

[Read more session reports from WTO Public Forum 2017]

This session focused on the interaction between trade, economic growth, and decent work, and addressed the question of how trade policies can drive progress on sustainable development goal (SDG) 8 (decent work and economic growth) while avoiding potentially adverse effects on labour.

The topic was introduced by Mr Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director, CUTS International, who argued that the overall benefits of trade have been well-recognised, but that these benefits have not always trickled down to marginalised communities. With inadequate working conditions, outsourced jobs, and backlash against globalisation and trade, how can workers’ interests be better protected and enhanced?

Mr Syer Nayyar, Senior Counsellor, Development Division, WTO Secretariat, reflected on the positive effect of trade openness and economic growth. Protectionism is not only an obstacle to growth and development, it is also a potential source of conflict. To him, ‘strong commitment to fairer trade is one of the best ingredients for a comparatively peaceful and better world’, and this objective needs to be reflected in domestic trade policies as well as international ones. Information technology and e-commerce provide new opportunities for workers; yet, as skills requirements are changing, countries need to adopt policies that help train these workers, so that new opportunities can be taken advantage of. Nayyar also mentioned the positive role of the WTO’s Aid for Trade programme in contributing to development and decent work.

Mr Mostafa Abid Khan, Minister, Permanent Mission of Bangladesh, Geneva, spoke about the particular challenges faced by the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in promoting decent work. Since the adoption of the Istanbul Programme of Action for the Least Developed Countries in 2011, of which one of the aims is to double the LDC’s share in global exports, their exports have in fact reduced since 2014. According to Khan, to promote decent work for the LDCs, economic growth needs to be addressed, to ensure that workers have a fair income. Decent work cannot be established in isolation, and needs to be part of a holistic effort that encompasses trade, growth, infrastructure, and domestic resource mobilisation.

Mr José Guilherme Reis, Manager for Trade and Competition, World Bank Group, echoed Nayyar’s vision of trade as an integral part of efforts to reduce poverty. Yet, to maximise the impact of trade, policies need to address the informal sector, the gender gap, the rural sector, and poverty in conflict areas. To Reis, protectionism is not the answer to address concerns by those who feel left behind by globalisation; rather, domestic, complementary policies should address these issues, such as labour market mobility, and credit and housing policies.

Mr David Cheong, Chief Technical Adviser, International Labour Organization, emphasised the importance of decent work for sustainable development. The need for decent work has been recognised by international institutions, in declarations, and in the SDGs. Cheong argued that an inclusive development agenda rests on the participation of all people within the labour market, under proper conditions. Trade, allowing for cross-border competition, risks harming the welfare of workers. According to Cheong, violations of fundamental labour rights to boost competition is an unsustainable practice. To reconcile trade and labour sectors, policies need to be devised in consultation with all actors affected by trade, as well as by forging a common understanding between trade and labour ministries. These consultations also need to feed into multilateral trade agreements, to ensure that their effects on the labour market are taken into account.

Chatterjee closed the session by highlighting the challenges for decent work, and by raising the question how to address them with trade agreements, without resorting to sanctions that adversely affect the population. 

by Barbara Rosen Jacobson