In recent decades, WTO trade rules and a number of trade deals have overturned protections and made it easier for multinational companies to situate themselves in countries where it is easiest to exploit workers.
What would a workers’ agenda on global trade look like?
Enforcing workers’ rights
Trade deals and WTO rules should be used as a lever to lock in the highest standards by enforcing respect for international labour organisation (ILO) standards rather than undermining them. Too often, rights are defined disparagingly in trade deals as ‘non-tariff barriers’ that should be removed.
Promoting decent jobs
International trade deals and WTO rules must promote good jobs. Domestic industries like manufacturing that rely on imports can be boosted by reducing tariffs, but tariffs should still be used to protect sectors from unfair competition - such as the agriculture sector in Kenya that has faced trade dumping from the UK and EU.
Protecting public services
There must be a complete exemption for all public services (including those that have been part-privatised) in WTO rules and trade deals.
Trade deals must also exclude the corporate court system (known as the Investor-State Dispute Settlement system) that allows multinational companies to sue governments for regulating public services that have been privatised in a way that threatens their profits.
Guaranteeing equitable and free access to vaccines
The UK and other governments must stop blocking a waiver to the WTO intellectual property rules (so called TRIPs rules) that are currently preventing Global South countries producing Covid vaccines for their populations. At the ‘Building back a better world’ event Jayati Ghosh emphasised the human rights imperative for people in all countries to have free access to Covid vaccines. Lives are being lost every day due to Global North governments' obstructions.
International solidarity successes
Trade unions are – as they always have been – working internationally to advance this global agenda to push for global regulation to capital and common rights.
Here are some recent examples the TUC has been involved in -
TUC Aid is supporting a project with the Eastern Africa Trade Union Confederation on trade campaigning. As part of this project, unions in Kenya developed campaigns with civil society groups to call for Kenyan MPs to reject the UK-Kenya trade deal that was finalised in November . The TUC reinforced these concerns in its joint statement with Kenyan unions and civil society groups. As a result of this campaigning, in March the Kenyan government agreed to review the UK-Kenya trade deal next year - this opens the possibility that the agreement could be amended or dropped.
The TUC lobbied with trade unions across the EU throughout the negotiations of the UK’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement. This helped secure a process in the final deal where countries face penalties for violations of labour standards – which the UK government had staunchly resisted during negotiations. These do not go far enough, so we continue to campaign for these to go further.
The TUC has been working closely with the AFLCIO - the US version of the TUC - to push for common objectives on trade which we published in a joint statement last year.
Through this collaboration we know that trade unions in the US are consulted on the text of trade negotiations – and were able to strengthen the labour chapter of the US-Mexico-Canada agreement as a result.
Under President Biden, US unions are set to have considerably more influence, with a number of trade unionists now acting as trade advisors.
We have drawn on the example of union engagement in the US to call on the UK government to involve unions in the UK in negotiations. As a result, the UK government has now committed to involving trade unions in trade negotiations - although this has yet to become a practice.
The TUC is working with trade unions in the US and internationally to encourage governments and the WTO to take the ‘worker-centred’ approach to trade the Biden administration has pledged to take, thanks to the influence of US unions.
These successes show the influence international trade union campaigning and solidarity can have.
Another key influencing opportunity is coming up – and you can get involved.
In June governments from G7 countries – Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, UK, US - will meet in the UK.
In the run up to the G7 meeting the TUC is working with trade unions internationally to call on governments to adopt the workers’ agenda for global rules – including on trade - outlined in the L7 statement.
On 26- 27 April there will be a summit involving the UK government to press our demands.
Sign up here to attend and be part of the world-wide campaign for global rules that benefit the public good, not multinational companies and the elite.
To watch the TUC/L7 event ‘Building back a better world’ click here.
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