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The UK is a long way off from a truly worker-centred approach to trade

4 min read

Today marks the final day of the trade summit in Aberdeen, where the UK and US government are.

At the summit, unions and business sit alongside the UK and US government officials – and top of the agenda is a “worker-centred” approach to trade.

In a bid to woo their US counterparts, ministers have been bigging up their “worker-centred” credentials. But a fundamental problem that UK ministers will need to fix if they want to secure closer trade ties with the US is the failure to listen to unions and promote workers’ rights. 

The US has adopted a “worker-centred” approach to trade. Fundamentally, that means working with trade unions. And although the US’ approach is certainly not without fault, union participation has worked to good effect.  

Trade union involvement in the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement saw the strongest labour rights enforcement chapters ever agreed, with the possibilities for sanctions to be introduced against companies that are abusing labour rights. 

Countries like Belgium and Austria also regularly consult trade unions in trade negotiations as part of their tradition of social dialogue. 

But the truth is, the UK is a long way off from a truly worker-centred approach to trade. 

Trade deals should be a force for good. But without the right protections they can lead to a race to the bottom

Take the influential trade advisory groups, which are consulted on the text of trade negotiations. The government has not yet accepted all of the TUC’s union nominations on trade advisory groups. That means trade unions still don’t have seats on groups – but businesses do. 

Then consider how ministers have reportedly been working on plans to override their international legal obligations on the Northern Ireland protocol.  

This will put the Good Friday Agreement – which means peace, decent jobs and rights – at risk. The US won’t look kindly on this either, having been vocal about the importance of protecting the Agreement.

A truly worker centred approach to trade would involve going beyond the US approach to put human and labour rights first when it comes to deals.  

Just before the trade summit, when Boris Johnson visited India, we saw a glimpse of the government’s morally questionable pursuit of trade deals above all else. 

The prime minister was schmoozing up to the Indian government in a bid to advance trade talks – and of course, garner some improved publicity for his battered reputation. 

Contrary to what some in government seem to think, trade deals are not primarily a publicity tool. They have real impacts on working people – on their jobs and their livelihoods.

The UK shouldn’t be hurtling into a trade deal with India, no questions asked.  

Suppression of trade unions, forced labour, child labour and other workers’ rights abuses are all widespread in India. Until the Indian government acts, ministers should abandon trade talks on a UK-India deal.

The India talks aren’t an anomaly. 

Loose ethics and a willingness to overlook egregious human rights and labour rights abuses in order to secure trade deals have been a steadfast feature of the government’s approach to trade. The ITUC’s Global Rights index last year confirmed this.   

Five of the ten countries rated “worst in the world for workers” have been given trade deals by the UK government in the past two years – including Colombia, where defending rights is met with murder or Turkey where trade unionists are regularly detained.

And, we know the UK is looking to sign trade deals with other countries like Brazil, the Gulf States, Israel– as well as India – which all have terrible records on human rights and labour rights.       

Trade deals should be a force for good. But without the right protections they can lead to a race to the bottom on standards and displace good jobs.   

And in the worst-case scenario, they can provide endorsement for regimes that abuse human and labour rights. We are now seeing that worst-case scenario play out in the government’s terrible track record on trade.

It’s time for the UK government to adopt a truly worker-centred trade policy and not enter into agreements with countries where workers’ and human rights are being trampled.  

That means the UK using its significant leverage on the global stage to ensure governments around the world respect fundamental rights, promote decent jobs and reduce global inequalities. And it means following best practice internationally on union engagement. The government should meaningfully consult with trade unions and listen to our concerns. 

That’s how you get trade deals that work for working people – and deliver job opportunities and improved rights at home and abroad. 

Finally, ministers also need to look at their record look at their record for workers in the UK.

Any truly 'worker-centred' government would deliver on its promise to bring forward an employment bill to boost workers' rights in Britain.

It is vital that we lead by example at home and in our dealings with other countries.


Frances O'Grady is General Secretary of the TUC.

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