Friday, November 6, 2015

What will the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP trade agreement) mean for workers’ compensation?

Trade deals often contain provisions regarding labour, social security (including workers' compensation), occupational health and safety (OH&S).  The Trans-Pacific Partnership text  contains several clauses of note. 
Aside from its aspirational purpose statements in the beginning of the document, Article 19.3: Labour Rights notes [item 2]:
Each Party shall adopt and maintain statutes and regulations, and practices thereunder, governing acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health.
You might be forgiven for assuming that this clause implies there will be some external standard-setting body or authority on what “acceptable conditions” might be.  A footnote in the agreement, however, narrows the potential impact of the scope considerably:   
[Footnote 5 page 19-2] For greater certainty, this obligation relates to the establishment by a Party in its statutes, regulations and practices thereunder, of acceptable conditions of work as determined by that Party.
Article 19.10 opens the door to “cooperation” on many issues including:
(c) innovative workplace practices to enhance workers’ well-being and business and economic competitiveness;
(e) work-life balance;
(j) occupational safety and health;
(p) social protection issues, including workers’ compensation in case of occupational injury or illness, pension systems and employment assistance schemes;
There is also an article on “Non Degrogation”.  Article 19.4 reads in part:
The Parties recognise that it is inappropriate to encourage trade or investment by weakening or reducing the protections afforded in each Party’s labour laws.
The TPP clearly anticipates the criticism that trade agreements can put downward pressure on social security, working conditions, OH&S and workers’ compensation.  There were concerns over  “a race to the bottom” on safety, health and workers’ compensation issues that followed the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example. 
Will the TPP result in improved workplace health and safety or workers’ compensation overall?  I’m not sure from my quick review that there is any will to fund the independent research necessary to answer such questions.  That sort of research is complex, time-consuming and expensive.   However, the only way the public in every member nation will know if the TPP is helping or hurting the safety, health, and workers’ compensation protections is through objective, well-designed study that assesses each system against common standards. 
The economic benefits of the TPP may well improve the OH&S and work-injury financial protections for workers;  we won’t know for certain unless its implementation and progress is objectively assessed against credible standards.
Hopefully, member states will fund the research necessary to establish the baseline comparison, monitor changes and assess the impact of the TPP on workplace health, safety and compensation issues. 

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