The International Labor Organization (ILO) releases a new study, which looks at how the increasing number of labor provisions in free trade agreements are impacting the world of work. According to the study:
Labor provisions in free trade agreements take into consideration any standard which addresses labor relations or minimum working terms or conditions, mechanisms for monitoring or promoting compliance, and/or a framework for cooperation. (See appendix: evolution of labor provisions in US free trade agreements).
As of December 2015, there were 76 trade agreements in place (covering 135 economies) that include labor provisions, nearly half of which came into existence after 2008. This represents more than one-quarter (28 percent) of the trade agreements which the World Trade Organization (WTO) has been notified of, and which are currently in force. Over 80 percent of agreements that came into force since 2013 contain such provisions. Countries most active in promoting labor provisions in free trade agreements include: Canada, the European Union, the United States, Chile, New Zealand and Switzerland. Some South-South free trade agreements also include labor provisions.
The study finds that there is NO evidence to support the claim that implementation and enforcement of labor standards leads to reduced trade. The findings show that trade agreements, with or without labor provisions, boost trade between members of the agreement to a similar extent. For country-partner pairs that have a trade agreement with labor provisions in force, bilateral trade is estimated to be on average 28 percent greater than what would be expected without such an agreement.
Results further show that, on average, trade agreements that contain labor provisions impact positively on labor force participation rates, bringing larger proportions of male and female working-age populations into the labor force and, particularly, increasing the female labor force. The study assumes that labor provisions in trade agreements can raise people’s expectations of better working conditions, which in turn increases their willingness to enter the labor force.
However, the study found NO statistically significant relationship between labor provisions and labor market outcomes such as wages, share of vulnerable employment or gender gaps at the aggregate level (i.e. consider all countries). On the one hand, this implies that labor provisions at least do not lead to the deterioration of other labor standards in a country. On the other hand, it indicates that labor provisions in free trade agreements have limited impact on the outcomes of the labor market.
Additionally, the study stresses that interaction among stakeholders, capacity-building and monitoring mechanisms – with the support of social dialogue are critical to achieve positive outcomes in the labor market. In a case study on the Cambodia–US Textile Agreement specifically, the report finds strong firm-level intervention, such as monitoring and compliance, improved wages at the firm level, including a notable reduction of the gender wage gap. In another case study, it is found that capacity-building measures brought to Bangladesh after the Rana Plaza tragedy have resulted in some visible improvements with respect to the number of trade unions, building safety and amendments in labor law in the country.
Appendix: Evolution of labor provisions in US free trade agreements
According to the Los Angeles Times, California’s newly proposed $15/hour minimum wage by 2022 could spur more local apparel manufacturers to exit the state if not leaving the country. For example, the American Apparel, the biggest clothing maker in Los Angeles, has announced it might wipe out about 500 local jobs and outsource the making of some garments to another manufacturer in the United States.
Statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that the number of employment in the L.A. apparel manufacturing sector (NAICS315) decreased by around 32% from 61.8 thousand in 2005 to 42.0 thousand in 2015. Meanwhile, average hourly wage for sewing operators in California increased by around 25.5% from $8.98/hour to $11.27/hour. As another source, the California Fashion Association says that the hourly wage for LA apparel workers was around $15/hour in 2014 (all occupations).
As reported by the Los Angeles Times, many apparel companies see L.A. increasingly become a difficult place to do business because of the expensive and limited commercial real estate, the rising pressures of raw material cost and the difficulty of finding sufficient skilled workers who can afford to live in the city. Companies expect the situation to get even worse after the minimum-wage hike further raises their operation expenses in the years to come.
Some industry professionals suggest L.A. may “become for apparel what Silicon Valley is for technology: the hub for the design, but not the manufacturing, of products”. Data from the California Fashion Association shows that in May 2012, 3,770 independent fashion designers worked in Los Angeles, earning about $30 an hour in Orange County and $35 an hour in the L.A. County metro area. However, such a prospect is unclear given the advancement of technologies such as the CAD system which makes location less critical for fashion designers. On the other hand, L.A. is facing competitions from other apparel hubs such as the New York City for design businesses and talents.
While most discussions on improving corporate social responsibility practices in the apparel industry still focus on conventional solutions like higher labor standards and more effective monitoring programs, a recent Boston Consulting Group report suggests supply chain innovation also has its role to play.
One key argument of the report is: Although cost still matters in apparel sourcing, lower-cost can be achieved through means other than seeking cheap labor. For example:
Engendering end-to-end supply chain efficiency through managing raw materials. Apparel companies may work with their suppliers further down the supply chain to optimize fabric selection, which usually account for as much as 60-70 percent of the total cost of a finished garment (v.s. 30-40 percent of labor cost). Some apparel companies have started to use fewer yarns and weight classes so as to reduce fabric count and lower down sourcing cost. Some other companies are realizing significant cost reduction by timing orders so as to level the load over the course of the year. [Note: looks like Uniqlo’s model]
Building an integrated supply chain. As cited in the report, to balance sourcing cost and speed to market, one major apparel retailer builds 15 to 20 percent of the season’s styles and pre-positions about two-thirds of its raw material before the season (both in-house and from production partners). During the season, the company analyzes sales, staying in constant communication with its stores and with the design team. It resupplies items that are selling well through accelerated production and delivery, usually within three to four days. Designers then create new styles by adapting the best sellers using the pre-positioned material. [Note: looks like Zara’s model]
Innovating ways of production. The report suggests that bonding and gluing technologies (i.e. use bonded adhesive films and processes such as ultrasonic heating and high-frequency radiation to fuse together layers of fabric) can produce an entire small garment in 30 to 40 percent less time than conventional cut-and-sew. Digital technologies such as digital prototyping of textile designs can also significantly help apparel makers reduce waste and boost efficiency in pattern making. The potential application of 3D printing may further allow apparel makers to produce smaller batches, and possibly even allow for made-to-order production of individually designed and sized garments. This would not only allow companies to match the market’s growing need for speed, but also reduce the costs of retail inventory surpluses and associated price reductions.
Two additional thinking based on the report:
First, much attention has been given to the changing business environment of the apparel industry, such as rising labor cost in Asia, shifting market growth towards emerging economies and more sophisticated consumers’ demand in the era of omni-channel retailing. But what if the nature of the apparel industry is also changing: if one day labor cost is no longer a key factor in deciding where to produce and apparel production itself is no longer labor-intensive at all? Although automation of apparel production was not achieved in the 20st century, it may not be something totally impossible in the 21st century. We need to have bold thinking here.
Second, while the apparel industry is innovating its business model (i.e. the way to produce, the way to deliver products and the way to serve its customers), T&A educational programs also need to embrace innovative thinking. For example: are traditional course offerings sufficient enough (or still relevant) to prepare students’ job readiness in the 21st century? How to proactively respond to the changing nature of the apparel industry which has started to adopt more and more new technologies? What if we redefine the meaning of “T&A” majors and redesign the model of preparing the workforce for the apparel industry? (just like the question: for wearable technology, shall IT companies make apparel or apparel companies make IT products?)