The EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUS-FTA) that will be considered by the European Parliament must not be promoted at the expense of human, labour, or environmental rights.
13 January 2014
(Singapore) - The EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUS-FTA) that will be considered by the European Parliament must not be promoted at the expense of human, labour, or environmental rights. The forthcoming EUS-FTA is most likely to include a comprehensive chapter on trade and sustainable development.
The Think Centre (TC) in this statement highlights the importance of such a comprehensive and legally binding chapter on trade and sustainable development and the "Framework Agreement". The "Framework Agreement" with Singapore is expected to influence any future Free Trade Agreements with member states of ASEAN.
The chapter on trade and sustainable development should aim to positively strengthen and affirm fundamental principles and rights at work to ensure decent work, environmental protection, social development, and the involvement of civil society organisations in monitoring the implementation of these rights and standards.
The European Union – Singapore Framework Agreement, like the EU-South Korea Framework Agreement (2010), should be an overarching political cooperation agreement that requires the participation of Civil Society in monitoring the implementation of the agreement. Such a solid framework aims to strengthen cooperation on embedding democratic principles and human rights to realise fair and just globalisation, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.
Obligations of EU and Singapore under International Law
As all EU member states and Singapore are members of the United Nations, they are obliged under the UN Charter, Chapter IX articles 55 and 56, to uphold and promote the fulfilment of socio-economic and cultural development based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. All parties to the FTA have a duty, to promote, respect and protect fundamental human rights.
This obligation requires determined action based on fundamental principles. While we acknowledge that trade between nations may bring benefits and prosperity, human rights must never be compromised in the process.
Need for Social and Essential Elements Clause
The working and sandwiched classes have borne the brunt of many social costs brought about by all the economic crises in the last two decades. In Singapore, the effect is felt even more acutely as there is no robust social safety net to cushion the impact of these crises. Whatever feeble support structures that now exist are actually funded by workers themselves and operated by the government through a compulsory savings scheme. The Singapore employment laws have been skewed in favour of the employers since 1968, all workers, whether locals or migrants, enter the labour market with minimal labour protections.
The ongoing EU-Singapore FTA process should be conducted in compliance with the EU's external trade requirement as stated in Article 21 of the Treaty on European Union. There must be inclusion of robust 'Social' and 'Essential Elements' clauses containing the requirement for both parties to adhere and implement international human rights and labour standards in the final FTA. Both are necessary components, which should be non-negotiable. More importantly, they must allow for civil society and trade unions to monitor the implementation of basic human rights, fundamental principles and rights at work. Such clauses cannot be seen as non-tariff protectionism since similar provisions have been included in other EU negotiated trade agreements.
Singapore's lip service to international human rights and labour standards
Singapore ranks among the richest nations in the world by many international economic indicators. According to the UN Statistics Division, Singapore ranks comparably with the top five EU member states achieving GDP per capita of at least US$50,000. However, this impressive statistic is achieved based on policies, laws and practices, which do not conform to and in some cases even contravene international standards. This was seen as recently as December 2013 when the government deported migrant workers allegedly involved in a riot with no consideration for justice.
While the Singapore government publicly acknowledges the need for human rights in the international arena, it has only ratified its first two human rights conventions (CRC and CEDAW) in 1995, 30 years after its independence. It took another 18 years before it ratified its third (CRPD) in 2013. Although in terms of respecting labour standards, Singapore has ratified 5 out of the 8 core conventions enumerated in the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. However the government has resisted ratifying conventions 87, 105 and 111 for reasons that are tied intimately with the control of politics and labour arrangement.
Rectifying the gap
There are huge gaps between Singapore's local laws and practices when compared with internationally accepted standards. Singapore's reliance on migrant labour is not sustainable when it treats all human labour as a commodity to be exploited for productivity gains. When administrative expediency is prized over the substantive rule of law, we will see how this results in unfair and unjust working conditions for all workers and their families in the country.
Singapore must be persuaded to ratify ILO's core labour instruments that protect the rights of all workers. It should also sign the forthcoming ASEAN Instrument on the promotion and protection of the rights of migrant workers, which would raise the level of protection and promotion of migrant workers' rights to international standards in 2015.
These are international standards that should be respected and incorporated into the local framework with regard to the management of labour and migrant workers' rights. This should become the prerequisite before entering into an FTA with the EU. With respect to the EU, this requirement should form the basis for expanding future FTA negotiations with other ASEAN member states. Without such a comprehensive and coherent labour framework, local and migrant workers will continue to be pitted against one another and both groups will suffer from the lack of adequate social and labour rights protections.
Trade and sustainable development agenda
We urge all parties to recognise and respect that human rights are universally applicable legal norms. The FTA between the EU and Singapore will invariably influence negotiations with the rest of ASEAN member states. As ASEAN moves toward economic integration in 2015, it is critical that human rights be featured prominently as preconditions for the EUS-FTA as it is a forerunner of all other FTAs.
Singapore's human rights standards, labour laws and policies, and environmental laws and policies too must be harmonised to internationally acceptable legal standards to actualise the sustainable development agenda.
The EUS-FTA must ensure the establishment of a consultative mechanism that engages and involves stakeholders like civil society organisations, domain experts, workers organisations, and employers on the implementation and continued monitoring of basic human rights, decent work, labour, social and environmental standards.