Public procurement and workers’ rights

Arrangements made by public bodies provide for the possibility of contracting private actors in order to offer the goods and services needed to meet their public interest mandate. These calls for tenders may include, for example, the execution of construction projects. In Canada, each level of government is free to adopt and apply its own procurement rules. Trade agreements signed by Canada include a   «procurement» chapter to ensure that such contracts are awarded in compliance with the principles of non-discrimination, transparency and impartiality. However, there is no specific mention of a social clause. Many calls for tenders are already open to international competition through the plurilateral Agreement on Government Procurement (GPA) that entered into force in 2014 under the auspices of the WTO. Canada and 46 other WTO members are now parties to the Agreement, reflecting the desire to create an effective framework for the liberalization of public procurement. Even though it is subject to a renegotiation process every two years, it does not currently provide for any social clause. The GPA is a legally binding treaty that provides two independent mechanisms for settling procurement-related disputes: domestic review mechanisms at the national level; and the WTO dispute settlement mechanism at the international level.

Only the CETA provides for the use of labour and social criteria in the tendering process.


Ways of linking workers’ rights to public procurement


Mentioning explicitly the possibility of including social considerations in tender procedures, a conditionality that can support the effective application of workers’ rights.

Adopting a specific provision allowing Canada to legislate on the inclusion of a social clause in calls for tenders to award and execute public contracts in Canada.

Linking the «procurement» chapter in trade agreements to compliance with the terms of «trade and labour» chapters.

Promoting the inclusion of a social clause within the context of further GPA re-negotiations by linking it to the pertinent ILO conventions.

Arguments in favour

  • Today, public procurement is of major importance, economically and socially: incorporating social criteria in public procurement will have a significant impact and a potential spillover effect on the private sector.
  • Access to Canadian public procurement should be based on fundamental and universal principles in accordance with the public interest.
  • Incorporating social criteria could act as an incentive for many countries to bring their practices and laws into alignment.
  • The possibility of integrating social criteria into « procurement » chapters could protect Canada from the risk of social dumping.

Arguments against

  • The sovereignty of local authorities in tender selection criteria would be reduced.
  • The inclusion of social criteria in the list of general exceptions of «procurement» chapters would have a discriminatory impact vis-à-vis the commercial partners concerned.
  • The integration of social criteria would be ineffective given that there is no binding dispute settlement mechanism on these issues.
  • Unilateral introduction of social criteria could be considered to be protectionism in public procurement.

What they said:


«In the last revision of the directives on public procurement, local governments had requested to increase thresholds for tenders in order to have greater freedom to award contracts to local beneficiaries. The request was rejected by the Commission on the ground that international agreements compelled us to respect the existing thresholds. CETA, like other trade agreements, undermines our ability to redefine and improve the tools we use to achieve important public policy objectives.» (Free translation)

Europe Ecology. «12 reasons to oppose CETA», May 27, 2016



 «What is at stake in trade agreements like CETA and TAFTA is our right to essential services, and much more is our ability to shape all types of services for the benefit of society as a whole. Unless strictly monitored, trade negotiations ultimately make it impossible to take a decision in favour of the common good.» (Free translation)

Thomas Fritz. «The great offensive on public services. TAFTA, CETA and the secret collusion between industrial lobbies and negotiators », October 2015



«The [Canada-European Union] agreement strongly challenges the Canadian public procurement’s protection, at the expense of local development and in favour of transnational European corporations. […] due to the non-discrimination and transparency principles, public actors will be pushed to take price as the main criteria in the selection of offers. This will push the social and environmental gains generated by the production method (that support ecological transition and local development) into a second criteria plan.»

International Association of Technicians, Experts and Researchers (AITEC). «Public procurement in TTIP and CETA: a poisoned gift to local authorities and SMEs», 2016



«AK [Austrian Federal Chamber of Labour] requests to ensure the comprehensive protection of the special nature and the high collective value of all services of general interest and not to undertake any classifications, which do neither find a basis in primary law nor in the current interinstitutional agreement! In addition, in view of the current CETA negotiations with Canada, we reiterate our concerns in respect of the so-called negative list approach and of increased liberalisation pressure on the public service sector.»

AK EUROPA. «“Services of General Interest in Bilateral Free Trade Agreements” – Reflection Paper of the European Commission», March 2011



«[…] governments are increasingly contracting with the lucrative private sector to provide so-called «public» services. […] With free trade agreements such as CETA and TAFTA, governments will lose the political leeway to organize public services on the basis of collective preferences, as these agreements will seal liberalization and privatization. This perspective worries because of the possibility that the profit-driven approach will prevent these services from being administered in favour of public interests. In addition, government attempts to regulate them could be considered as «barriers to trade» in the future, and thus be circumvented.» (Free translation)

Thomas Fritz. «The great offensive on public services. TAFTA, CETA and the secret collusion between industrial lobbies and negotiators», October 2015