22 June 2021

International trade governance needs stronger labor provisions

In his PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science, Rodrigo Fagundes Cezar traces how labor provisions in US and EU bilateral trade agreements evolved between 2000 and 2013. As he explains in this interview, it follows from his analysis that stronger labor provisions are becoming a necessary condition for the political feasibility of new trade agreements in the US, the EU and beyond.

Why did you choose to study labor provisions in “trade agreements in the US, the EU and beyond”?

Bilateral trade agreements are key to global trade governance. The absence of references to labor and environmental rights and protections in trade deals may lead to impasses in the trade agreements signed by the US and by the EU. Those two trade actors are, in turn, highly influential and their actions (or inactions) are likely to affect trade governance at a global level. Thus, labor provisions (and other so-called “non-trade issues”) are key to the governance of international trade. Moreover, some consider that labor provisions in trade deals improve the labor laws of trade partners and therefore labor provisions can be considered a “new” instrument of international labor governance.

Can you describe your thesis questions and the methodology you use to approach those questions?

The content and the strength of labor provisions in trade agreements change over the years and that change is not homogenous. In my thesis, I seek to understand when and why changes happen and how deep they tend to be. My focus is on the US and the EU, but I also start testing my argument in other contexts. My methodology is mostly based on a detailed tracing of the process of change in those provisions over the period between 2000 and 2013. That stepwise tracing is achieved by means of interviews, archival research, analysis of mainstream and specialised media, besides the – unfortunately still limited – evidence presented by the existing literature.

What are your major findings?

I find that change in labor provisions in trade agreements takes place as a way to balance out the benefits that are given to larger corporations in those same agreements. Groups that lobby for stronger labor clauses have a hard time accepting new trade deals that give exporters and multinationals too many rights without getting some rights distributed among workers as well. The effectiveness of that lobbying varies, of course, but overall I find evidence in favor of that balancing process, which I call a “balance of promotion” rationale.

Can you give an example of a topical issue on which your thesis might help shed a new light?

Trade agreements are quite a contentious and salient topic nowadays. The complaint we often hear is that those deals are instruments to benefit large corporations at the expense of workers and the environment. That discontent is often seen to come in waves, for instance at the end of the 1990s and, more recently, with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement (TTIP), the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). My thesis helps make sense of that discontent and also explains that the process behind it is not new. While the term “backlash against globalisation” is often talked about when trade is highly salient to the public, the idea behind balancing out what is given to large corporations and what is given back to workers and the environment is present even in moments when trade is not highly salient.

What could be the social and political implications of your thesis?

The main implication of my thesis is that stronger labor provisions – and in all likelihood environmental provisions as well – are becoming a necessary condition for the political feasibility of new trade agreements in the US, EU and beyond. Without a better balance between social and economic objectives in trade, international trade governance will be at risk of frequent political deadlocks. Policymakers and negotiators can benefit from anticipating that trend and taking more proactive actions to improve that balance. 

What are you going to do now?

I accepted a job as an assistant professor back in São Paulo, Brazil. I will be working at Fundação Getulio Vargas, in their newly founded School of International Relations. FGV is a highly renowned institution with the mission of advancing the socioeconomic development of Brazil and has been ranked third by the University of Pennsylvania’s list of leading think tanks in the world. There, I will be giving continuity to my research project on labor and environmental provisions in trade deals, expanding my analysis to other countries and using new methods to test my argument. The topic of non-trade issues in trade agreements is often researched by Europeans in European universities and my goal at FGV is to help further strengthen the study of that topic from the Global South and by Global South scholars.

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Rodrigo Fagundes Cezar defended his PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science in May 2021. Assistant Professor Sung Min Rho presided the committee, which included Professor Cédric Dupont and Professor Dirk De Bièvre, thesis co-supervisors, and Professor Layna Mosley, Department of Politics, Princeton University, USA.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Fagundes Cezar, Rodrigo. “A Quest for Balance: The Changing Design of Labor Provisions in Trade Agreements in the US, the EU and Beyond.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2021.
For access, please contact Dr Cezar.

Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Aisyaqilumaranas/
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.