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UK government must follow US’ ‘worker-centred’ approach on trade

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A fair and sustainable global trade is possible - if we listen to workers.

Last week I joined the US trade Ambassador Katherine Tai, UK international trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan and US trade unions in Baltimore for a UK-US trade dialogue event. The focus was on the Ambassador Tai’s ‘worker-centred’ agenda on trade

This agenda has put US trade unions at the heart of consultation on trade policy and trade negotiations - and meant the US government acting on the concerns of trade unions about abuses of labour rights in some of its trading partners.  

For example, last year the US government launched investigations into union-busting in General Motors and Tridonex factories in Mexico (with which the US has a trade deal).  As a result, the companies agreed to run fair elections for unions which resulted in workers voting for independent unions to represent them – a crucial step for workers to claim decent conditions and pay.   

At the event in Baltimore, I welcomed this worker-centred approach and made the case that the UK government could learn from the way the Biden administration has engaged unions on trade. To date, none of the UK’s trade deals contain effective mechanisms to enforce labour rights and, more broadly, trade unions have been effectively shut out of trade negotiations. We not only need all the right unions round the table, we also need to the ability to scrutinise the text of proposed deals. 

In Baltimore I also welcomed the progress being made by both governments to resolve the US-UK tariff dispute - and in fact the next day the UK and US governments announced an agreement to end the steel and aluminium tariffs. This was a real victory for union campaigning both in the UK and in the US where United Steelworkers provided important support.  I also echoed Richard Neill, chairman of the Congress Ways and Means committee,  who reminded the plenary of the need for both governments to fulfil their commitments to the Good Friday Agreement, peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.  These commitments are clearly at odds with the UK government’s reported threats to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol by triggering Article 16.   

And I used my contributions at the event to make the case for creating and sustaining good quality jobs, addressing regional disparities, diversifying the workforce and meeting our net zero commitments to be explicit objectives of our trade policy. 

After the Baltimore event, the UK and US governments issued a joint statement where they pledged to support ‘inclusive economic growth for workers and businesses’ and ensure that trade deals ‘strengthened protections for workers’ rights…tackle forced labour globally…[and] harness the benefits of an open and competitive digital economy, with appropriate safeguards for workers, consumers and businesses.’ 

The TUC will be holding the government to these pledges and pointing out that they are incompatible with the government kicking off trade talks with governments abusing human and labour rights such as the Gulf States and India. The P&O scandal also highlights the need for the UK government to ensure its domestic employment legislation is fit for purpose. 

Ensuring trade policy enforce workers’ rights are essential for preventing a race to the bottom globally – a point Ambassador Tai has been keen to emphasise.  

By putting workers, their families and communities at the heart of trade, we have the potential to create global trade which is fair and sustainable.  

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