This research explores whether international trade can drive sustainable development by investigating whether labour provisions in regional trade agreements can influence gender equality at work. Such research is critical to justify incorporating labour provisions and alleviate fears that these provisions were only included for protectionist or window dressing purposes. The International Labour Organisation has highlighted the paucity of research on the effectiveness of labour provisions. Additionally, the credibility of existing studies is reduced by the lack of information on labour provisions and working conditions, and a strong theoretical framework to explain causation.
To address this gap in knowledge, two normative tools were developed to explain causation. Drawing from existing studies and autopoietic systems theory, a theoretical framework was developed to explain how labour provisions could stimulate improvement in working conditions by influencing context-specific factors instrumental to the trade-labour standards relationship. Using theories of information regulation and autopoietic systems theory, a regulatory model was developed to explain how a labour provision could change social norms by regulating compliance information on labour standards. A case study was conducted on the labour provision in the US-Cambodia Bilateral Textiles Agreement, primarily selected because information was available on its operation and working conditions in Cambodian garment factories.
The two normative tools revealed that labour provisions can influence gender equality at work by targeting context-specific factors instrumental to working conditions and regulating the creation, quality and utilisation of compliance information. However, labour provisions can succumb to the neoliberal drive for economic growth and efficient markets, domestic policies of repression and local cultural norms. When this occurs, labour provisions effect superficially positive changes such as compliance with a statutory minimum standard while obscuring deeper issues such as discrimination and repression, and the maintenance of an underclass of informal workers. More positively, labour provisions can empower women to seek changed social norms at work through transparency and education.