Navigating the Complex Intersection of Trade and Social Clauses: A Reflection on Asif Salahuddi’s Perspective

Yirgalem Germu


In the ever-complex landscape of global trade, the role of social clauses in international agreements remains a subject of intense debate. Asif Salahuddi's provocative article, 'Infusion of Social Clauses into Global Trade Agreements: How Necessary Are They?'1 explores this contested terrain by presenting arguments both for and against the incorporation of social clauses—standards governing labor conditions—into these agreements. Salahuddi proposes that issues related to labor conditions are better suited for regulation by specialized organizations like the International Labour Organization (ILO), rather than being integrated into the trade-focused framework of the World Trade Organization (WTO). While I find Salahuddi’s arguments compelling, particularly his emphasis on the specialized expertise of the ILO, I also have reservations that explore the efficacy and fairness of excluding such clauses from trade agreements. This reflection aims to delve into these complexities, elucidating where Salahuddi’s arguments resonate and where they fall short.

I lean towards the conclusion made by the author, which stands against the inclusion of social clauses in the trade agreements and leaving such issues for the administration under ILO system. Because, one, the ILO is specialized and experienced with the issue and many of the benchmarking conventions and recommendations are the result of its effort. Second, the primary aim of the WTO is not to protect labour rights but rather to facilitate trade liberalization. On the other hand, ILO is aimed at improving the situations prevalent at work places, by ensuring workers’ rights protection.

I have reservations on some of the arguments presented in the article, the author argues that the inclusion of social clauses in trade agreements are aimed at taking away the scenario that the developing countries have a competitive advantage over developed countries, hindering the growth of developing countries. However, the author failed to consider the power of execution mechanisms provided under Dispute Settlement Mechanisms of the WTO and the human right perspective that might be raised as justification for protection of rights embodied as minimum standard.

The author also provided that educating the population and the work force enhances labour standards of a country. But, in states like USA where 99% of the society (above the age of 15) are literate,2 there is widespread violation of workers’ right.3 Hence, we can say that the literacy of the work force should be accompanied with other measures, such as legislative, executive and remedial means.

As provided by the author, a social clause is aimed at improving labour conditions in exporting countries by allowing sanctions to be taken against exporters who fail to observe minimum standards. However, in the assertion provided we can identify three major questions that need to be answered: (1) who is going to measure the violation? (2) Whose minimum standard is appropriate to be applied? (3) What about the determinant factors in developing states to determine the minimum standards, we may not have universal approach or measurement to set a minimum requirement such as minimum wage. The author also stated the provision of the Treaty of Rome on social policy considerations, European may have such a commitment but this cannot be applied against the developing countries, and the developed nations are forcing them to create fair competition for their products, not as sympathy to human right of the workers in developing countries.

As discussed under the article, the introduction of social clause is justified by the unfairness of competition based on low wage. The writer argued against this notion by raising the area of production that the industries of developing and developed states involved and the level of skill and technology required for the production in respective states. But, it is also worth mentioning the amount that being paid in each developing states to be examined in light of the living index of that particular state.

In conclusion, Asif Salahuddi's article presents a compelling case for relocating the responsibility of social clauses from the WTO to the specialized domain of the ILO. While I largely concur with this perspective, I also believe that Salahuddi could have further explored the potential for dispute resolution mechanisms and human rights considerations. The question of implementing social clauses in international trade agreements is far from straightforward, laden as it is with implications for global equity, labor rights, and market competition. As the debate continues, it will be crucial to consider how best to harmonize trade liberalization with the urgent need for fair labor standards.


1. Asif Salahuddi, Infusion of Social Clauses into Global Trade Agreements: How Necessary Are They?, University of Asia Pacific Journal of Law & Policy, p. 28-41

2. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Population Division, available at http:/ accessed on 29-Dec.-2018

3. Lance A. Compa , Labor rights and labor standards in international trade, Law & Policy in Int’l Bus, Vol. 25 (1993), p. 171

About the Author

Yirgalem Germu serves as a faculty member at the School of Law at Hawassa University. Holding degrees in LLB, LLM in Business Law, and LLM in Criminal Justice, he possesses a diverse educational background. In addition to teaching, he is the Program Manager for the ILO Project at the School of Law at Hawassa University and also serves as the Managing Editor for the Hawassa University Journal of Law. His research interests and professional work focus on labor laws, the protection of labor rights, and the criminal justice system in Ethiopia.

Afghan children working in a coal mine, source: Al Majalla, 12 Jun 2023