Services trade and the WTO

There are multiple ways – called 'modes' in the World Trade Organization (WTO) – for services to be delivered in international trade:

How is trade in services regulated?

The rules for international trade in services are set by members of the WTO and are contained in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Under the GATS, individual WTO Members make specific undertakings on the degree of access foreign service providers will enjoy in their market, and whether they are treated differently than local service providers. The Australian Government, like other WTO Members, retains the right to regulate and fund public services, such as water supply, public health and public education.

The GATS is designed to apply to any service in any sector except services supplied in the exercise of governmental authority. For ease of reference, the services commitments of WTO Members are generally categorised as follows:

Business

Communication

Construction and Engineering

Distribution

Education

Environment

Financial

Health

Tourism and Travel

Recreation, Cultural, and Sporting

Transport

Other services not included elsewhere.

Australia's role in the WTO Doha Round services negotiations

In the Doha Round, negotiations on individual services commitments have been conducted on a request-offer basis, whereby a WTO Member has requested better access to a particular services sector in another WTO Member's economy. This has been followed by an offer to grant all, some or none of the additional access requested. The process upheld the voluntary nature of GATS commitments, whereby each member is entitled to decide their own levels and sectors of liberalisation. An important element of the process is that any offer made is non-binding and could be amended or withdrawn at any time during the negotiations.

In 2006, the Doha Round of negotiations moved into a new phase with the launch of the plurilateral (or collective) sectoral request process agreed by Ministers at the 6th WTO Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong in December 2005. The collective negotiations differed from the traditional 'request-offer' approach, which was conducted on a 'one-to-one' or bilateral basis.

The plurilateral requests followed a broadly similar formatwhich included a common preamble that emphasised the flexibilities available to Members under the GATS, and a common structure that defined the sectoral coverage of the request and the specific commitments Members sought and limitations to be removed from schedules (such as restrictions on foreign equity, limitations on form of establishment, nationality requirements, discriminatory regulatory policies). A number of requests attached model schedules, checklists or menus to help recipient Members make commercially meaningful commitments.

Importantly, co-sponsors of plurilateral requests were 'deemed' recipients of the request to the extent that their own schedules did not comply. Deemed recipientsundertook to consider and respond to a request in good faith, but they did not have to necessarily commit to every element of the request.

Australia was a co-sponsor of 14 sectoral plurilateral requests and a recipient of eight sectoral plurilateral requests, most notably audio-visual and Mode 4. Information relating to sectoral requests can be accessed from the WTO website.

The full list of requests in which Australia was involved is as follows:

Co-Sponsor

Recipient

See also Australia’s existing offer, tabled in May 2005 [DOC 593 KB].