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Trade, Development and Decent Work

The recent financial and economic crisis has demonstrated beyond any doubt that national and regional economies are intimately connected with the global economy through trade (movement of goods), investment (movement of capital) and delivery of services (movement of people). 

The policies and agreements that regulate trade and investment have a great impact on the world of work. They affect employment in quantitative terms, quality of jobs and opportunities for creating sustainable enterprises. Consequently, those who seek to promote Decent Work have no choice but to be actively engaged in discussions about trade and development policies. The capacity of key labour market actors – i.e. workers’ and employers’ organizations – to participate meaningfully in such discussions therefore becomes a critical issue.  

In the Caribbean, the call to “… ensure that decent work is adequately addressed in regional and bilateral trade agreements” was made at the Tripartite Caribbean Employment Forum (Barbados, October 2006) – long before the CARIFORUM Economic Partnership Agreement (CARIFORUM EPA) with the European Union was initialled on 16 December 2007.  In the months leading up to the signing of the EPA by the majority of CARIFORUM States on 15 October 2008, Caribbean employers’ and workers’ organizations intensified their reflection on concerns that had arisen during those negotiations. They sought to define their positions and a course of action that would enable them to maximize the benefits of the EPA and prepare for future trade agreements.

At the 11th ILO Round Table for Caribbean Employers’ Organizations (Grenada, April 2008), there was concern about the “... risk of the economic and trade issues debate overshadowing the social and labour topics...” although they were “intricately intertwined”. National employers’ organizations were urged to “... become more familiar with national legislative and policy documents under review”, with regional agreements relating to the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) and international instruments such as the EPA.  

In June 2008, in response to Labour’s concerns about the potential effects and consequences of the EPA, a joint ILO-Caribbean Congress of Labour (CCL) Round Table was held in Barbados on the theme “Globalization, Regional Integration, and the Economic Partnership Agreement: the Social and Labour Dimensions”.

In the outcome document, the CCL Declaration and Plan of Action on Regional Integration and the EPA, labour representatives from the English- and Dutch-speaking Caribbean called for: “… meetings with workers and employers to make them aware of the implications of the measures contained in the EPA; and to develop with the technical assistance of the ILO and other regional and international institutions, materials on the EPA and other external trade agreements for the purpose of awareness-raising”. They also requested the ILO’s support for “… Caribbean social partners for capacity building, research and education in the area of external trade agreements.”

Employers and workers do have their particular interests and priorities. However, it is noteworthy that in their respective Round Tables, they each recognised the importance of strengthening the capacity of both social partners to deal with the social and labour aspects of trade and investment liberalization. A significant development that followed the June 2008 Workers’ Round Table on the EPA, was the signing on 12 February 2009, of a Memorandum of Understanding for Cooperation between the CCL and the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery (CRNM) [now the Office of Trade Negotiation of the CARICOM Secretariat].  That MoU established “a formal mechanism for consultations and exchange of information on trade-related labour issues” between parties who declared that they were “… Desirous of promoting a harmonious relationship between trade, decent work and regional development.” 

There are other ongoing and planned initiatives to follow-up on those Round Tables. They include this Workshop (16-18 September in Port of Spain). It is the first of a series of training activities that will focus not only on understanding and implementing the EPA; but also on preparing for future CARICOM external trade negotiations (e.g. the imminent negotiations with Canada) in the context of the CSME.

These initiatives in the Caribbean feed into broader efforts to realise the Decent Work Agenda for the Hemisphere (2006-2015). Adopted at the ILO’s Regional Meeting in Brazil in May 2006, this Hemispheric Agenda aims, inter alia, to ensure that the “globalization process takes place on fair terms” and that the “social partners, social dialogue and tripartism attain greater influence” in economic and social development.  

The ILO, through its Subregional Office for the Caribbean, is committed to enhancing the capacity of the membership of the CCL, the Caribbean Employers’ Confederation (CEC) to deal with trade and development issues. There is support for these efforts at the international level (The International Organization of Employers, the International Trade Union Confederation) and from within the ILO (the Bureaux for Employers’ and Workers’ Activities, and the Regional Office in Lima, Peru). Regionally, there are partnerships with CARICOM (e.g. the CSME Unit, the Office of Trade Negotiations), the University of the West Indies and other entities, from which expertise is drawn for technical cooperation.

CARICOM’s “Development Vision” for the Single Economy provides for broad stakeholder involvement through dialogue and functional cooperation at the national and regional levels. The social partners must be prepared to participate meaningfully in these processes.