Research on the domestic politics of trade typically begins with a theory about who benefits from trade and who is harmed by it. The actors—for instance, firms, workers, or industries—who benefit from trade are expected to support liberalization while those who are harmed are expected to oppose liberalization. For individuals, exposure to globalization through the labor market—including the type of job, firm, or industry—is likely to be an important determinant of individuals’ preferences over policies governing the global economy. To understand the domestic politics of trade with respect to labor, therefore, it is important to ask two key questions. First, what explains the preferences of workers? Broadly, scholars can be divided between those that argue different economic factors (i.e., labor market consequences) explain attitudes toward free trade and those who argue that noneconomic factors (e.g., values, information) are the main drivers of attitudes. Empirical tests of these theories rely on survey data. Second, how do trade pressures influence elections and when do workers’ interests influence policy outcomes? Research on mass politics shows that workers’ interests with respect to trade shape not only support for incumbents in elections but also whether elected officials support free trade. Domestic institutions also play an important role in this process, with research suggesting that democracies and left-leaning governments implement trade policies that are more favorable to workers. Yet trade in the 21st century looks very different from trade 30 years ago. It no longer involves only (or even primarily) the exchange of final goods but also trade in intermediate goods and services. Trade is also closely linked to the production strategies of multinational firms, including offshoring. These fundamental changes in the nature of global economic activity have important implications for the how the interests of workers relate to those of their employers, and by extension the politics of trade. As a result, scholars are increasingly incorporating new models of trade into analysis of politics at the individual and aggregate levels.
Erica Owen and Rena Sung
The World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement system is its judicial arm and enforcement mechanism, designed to assist members in resolving trade disputes that arise between them. Its design reflects a move toward greater legalization in trade governance under the multilateral trade regime. Compared with the dispute settlement system of its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the WTO’s dispute settlement provided a more structured and formal process with clearly defined stages and more discipline in the timetable of the dispute so as to resolve trade disputes as efficiently as possible. Most important, the WTO’s dispute settlement provides for virtually automatic adoption of panel rulings: a respondent losing a case can block the adoption only if it can persuade all members of the WTO not to do so. The legal basis for the WTO’s dispute settlement system is the Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU), which provides the principles and procedures by which members may bring their trade disputes to the multilateral trade regime for resolution. Overseeing the dispute settlement process is the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB), which consists of all WTO members and meets regularly to receive and to adopt reports of disputes at their various stages of progress. How effective is the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism? Effectiveness can be conceptualized as success in attaining the objectives of the dispute settlement under the WTO in three areas: the efficiency of dispute settlement; inclusiveness of the dispute settlement process, especially as it concerns developing country participation; and compliance with legal obligations resulting from arbitration. The existing scholarship on this topic features key debates and frontiers for future research on firms and global production networks/value chains that have the potential to advance our state of knowledge concerning this “crown jewel” of the multilateral trade regime.
What does current scholarship suggest about the relationship between the rights of workers in the developing world and the global economy? Contemporary multinational production includes both direct ownership of manufacturing facilities abroad and arm’s length subcontracting and supply chain relationships. Thus far, political economists have paid greater attention to the former; there are various reasons to expect that multinational firms may have positive, rather than negative, effects on workers’ rights. For instance, some multinationals are interested in hiring at the top end of local labor markets, and high standards serve as a tool for recruitment and retention. Multinationals also could bring “best practices” from their home countries to their local hosts, and some face pressure from shareholders and consumers—given their visibility in their home locations—to act in “socially responsible” ways. Hence, while directly owned production does not automatically lead to the upgrading of labor standards, it can do so under some conditions. Supply chain production is likely more mixed in its consequences for workers. Such production involves arm’s length, subcontracted production, in which multiple potential suppliers typically compete to attract business from lead firms. Such production often includes more labor-intensive activities; minimizing costs (including labor costs) and lowering production times can be key to winning subcontracts. We may therefore expect that subcontracted production is associated with greater violations of labor rights. It is worth noting, however, that research regarding the consequences of supply chain production—and the conditions under which such production may lead to improvements for workers—is less advanced than scholarship related to foreign direct investment. The governance of labor rights in a supply chain framework is marked by several challenges. It is often difficult for lead firms, even those that wish to protect worker rights, to effectively monitor compliance in their subcontractor facilities. This becomes more difficult as the length and breadth of supply chains grow; private governance and corporate social responsibility have therefore not always lived up to their promise. Rather, achieving labor protections in a supply chain framework often requires both private and public sector efforts—that is, governments that are willing to privilege the rights of workers over the rights of local factory owners and governments that are willing to enact and implement legal protections of core labor rights. Such government actions, when coupled with private sector–based capacity building, codes of conduct, and regular monitoring, offer the most promise for protecting labor rights within global supply chains. Finally, governments of developed countries also may play a role, if they are willing to credibly link working conditions abroad with market access at home.