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The campaign to promote workers’ rights in trade deals must be global

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Multinational business is lobbying for trade deals which will increase their profits at the expense of workers' rights. But trade unions across the world are fighting back.

Since 2016, the government has been pursuing what it has termed a ‘Global Britain’ agenda. 

Harking back to the days of Empire in both tactics and imagery, this agenda has mainly consisted of the government joining arm in arm with Global North allies – the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - to talk up the prospects of trade deals while pressuring Global South countries – most recently Kenya - to sign trade deals. 

It is clear that multinational business is driving this agenda.  

Multinationals have successfully lobbied for the UK (like the majority of countries) to pursue trade deals that will increase their profits by reducing protections for workers’ rights, social standards and protections for public services, and displacing workers from good jobs to create a more exploitable, vulnerable workforce. 

But workers are fighting back. 

As we have always done when international capital threatens workers, unions are organising globally.  

Unions around the world are calling for trade agreements and policies that guarantee protection for workers’ rights, public services and good jobs. 

In the last year, the TUC has joined with trade unions in the USKenyaJapanAustraliaNew Zealand and Norway - key countries the UK is negotiating, or has agreed, trade deals with - to affirm these shared principles in a series of joint statements.  

Our shared goals are to: 

Promote good jobs 

Promoting good jobs in the UK means first and foremost securing a trade deal with the EU as our largest market, on which millions of good, unionised jobs in the UK depend.  

No trade deal with another country can replace the EU, in terms of significance for jobs and the economy in the UK.  

For workers in Global South countries, it is crucial that the UK does not pursue trade deals that pressure governments to lower tariffs on domestic industries and agriculture. The TUC and unions in Kenya have condemned the recently agreed UK-Kenya trade deal that will compel Kenya to remove tariffs on its domestic industries. This will allow cheaper UK goods to undercut domestic products in Kenya, displacing workers from stable employment and forcing them to seek work in the informal economy where exploitation is common and pay is low.   

Require respect for fundamental labour standards 

Offering to sign a trade deal with another country gives the UK significant political leverage in the negotiation. This should be used to ensure countries respect fundamental workers’ rights as a condition for a trade deal with the UK. 

Unfortunately so far, the UK has failed to make this a condition and has negotiated trade deals with countries such as Colombia where fourteen trade unionists have been murdered in the last year and widespread human rights abuses are taking place. 

Effectively enforce respect for workers’ rights 

Trade deals must contain a mechanism for sanctions to be applied on countries and companies violating workers’ rights. Trade unions must be involved in this process to ensure action is taken when workers’ rights are abused. 

In UK trade deals, it is solely up to the government to decide whether to take action. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in no action being taken against countries that breach commitments they made in trade deals with the UK to respect International Labour Organisation standards, such as Colombia and South Korea. 

It’s critical that the UK signs a trade deal with the EU that contains effective measures to enforce workers’ rights and a role for trade unions in monitoring these commitments. 

Securing such a trade deal would set a precedent for other trade deals to enforce a high standard of workers’ rights.  

Without this agreement, the door will be opened for standards to be lowered significantly in the UK. Given the interconnected nature of the economy, this will pressure standards to be lowered across the world. 

Protect public services 

Trade deals must entirely exclude public services to defend them from privatisation and attacks on workers’ wages and conditions.  

Unfortunately, the trade deals the UK has agreed so far, such as the recently agreed UK- Japan trade deal, do not contain exemptions for public services and instead lock in privatisation for parts of the public sector. 

While the approach of President-elect Biden towards UK-US negotiations remains to be seen, the US pharmaceutical industry is likely to keep pushing for the UK to drop protections on drug pricing as part of a UK-US trade deal to allow them to increase their profits. 

Involve trade unions in negotiations 

Trade deals are legal documents, so every word matters.  

It is crucial trade unions can comment on the text of trade negotiations to ensure they adequately provide the protections listed above for workers’ rights and public services. And as a principle, unions must have access at least equal to that of employers.  

Trade unions in some of the countries the UK is negotiating trade deals with, such as the US, can comment on the text of trade negotiations. The UK government should follow a similar approach. 

The way ahead 

The TUC will continue to work with trade unions globally, developing joint lobbying to push for a trade agenda that promotes these key principles. This is particularly important in countries such as Japan, Norway and now the US, where trade unions have significant influence over their government’s trade agenda.  

By building this strength globally, we can push back against the agenda of multinational companies to increase profits at any cost.

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