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“E-commerce” push at WTO threatens to undermine labour

The ITUC has warned that new trade rules currently being tabled would place severe restrictions on governments’ ability to regulate in the interests of working people. The proposals, which come under the banner of the “e-commerce agenda”, have far-reaching implications on the future world of work.

At the Davos World Economic Forum today, a number of governments, predominantly from advanced economies, have announced their intention to launch of trade negotiations on e-commerce. By launching these negotiations, they aim to consolidate market access for digital companies. Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Facebook, and other online multi-national corporations stand to gain the most.

Data governance issues are central to the proposed WTO expansion. By guaranteeing the uninhibited flow of data across borders, they place major limitations on countries’ data sovereignty and on governments’ space for addressing abuses. The proposed changes would introduce direct disciplines on public regulation-making and bar governments from requiring companies to open local offices and to host servers on their territory. Without a local presence of companies, there is no entity to sue and the ability of domestic courts to enforce labour standards, as well as other rights, is fundamentally challenged.

“The issues being discussed are not limited to the practicalities of trade, they are workers’ rights issues, data governance issues and they are privacy issues. Algorithmic bias, workplace surveillance, electronic union blacklisting are realities and workers need their governments to protect them. We must not allow for a future in which working people’s ability to hold the giants of the digital economy accountable is limited by trade agreements. Our governments must have full power to regulate.

“We have seen how the Ubers and the Amazons of this world exploit current loopholes to deteriorate the conditions of working people. Rather than facilitating this type of irresponsible behaviour, governments should redouble their efforts to close down these loopholes. The only answer is a new social contract with a universal labour guarantee,” said Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC.

The ITUC has warned that until solutions are found to existing problems, governments must not limit their scope of action. The WTO has a track-record of focussing too narrowly on economic operators in trade and failing to consider wider concerns, including on labour standards. As such, the WTO is not the right place to negotiate binding rules on these issues.

“The question is: what is our vision for the future? Digital and technological developments have had huge impacts on our lives, but so much is yet to come. Do we want this future to be shaped by people’s interests, or by the interests of profit and big business?” concluded Ms Burrow.

Some background information on the trade union perspective on “e-commerce” provisions in trade is available here.

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