Abstract: Governments are mega-consumers of many manufactured products and services. As such they should in principle be able to influence workers’ rights abroad via the terms of purchase contracts. Yet to date little attention has been paid to the potential of public procurement to promote respect for labour rights globally besides the international trade law framework. Building on a limited emerging scholarship and policy developments, this article addresses this gap. Section 2 considers legal definitions of public procurement and distinguishes primary and secondary aims of procurement under key international and regional procurement regimes. This highlights that, although historically used to advance labour rights domestically, these regimes have restricted public buyers’ scope to advance labour rights beyond national borders. Section 3 explores new international policy frameworks on responsible global value chains and supply chains which by contrast appear to augur the greater use of public procurement to promote labour rights globally in future. Section 4 argues, supported by analysis of the limited examples available, that public buying has the potential to positively influence enjoyment of labour rights in practice. Concluding, Section 5 reflects on what the more specific impacts of public procurement in this context may be, and how public buying should complement other mechanisms for improving labour conditions across supply chains, such as social clauses in trade agreements. Finally, we outline issues for further research and the future policy agenda.
Keywords: European Union; labour rights; public procurement; social clauses; sustainable development goals; UNCITRAL; United Nations; United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights; WTO