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UK-US summit in Aberdeen: trade talks must involve workers and support the Good Friday agreement

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UK and US unions have jointly urged the International Trade Secretary in Aberdeen to involve unions in trade talks - to ensure trade deals promote good jobs, enforce workers’ rights and protect public services

Two weeks ago, the TUC, our US counterpart the AFL-CIO and unions in Scotland gathered in Aberdeen to discuss what a truly ‘worker-centred’ approach to trade should look like with the UK international trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan and US trade Ambassador Katherine Tai. 

This was the sequel event to one that took place in Baltimore in March, which the TUC’s Deputy General Secretary Paul Nowak attended and blogged about. 

The UK government organised the Aberdeen event to continue a dialogue on trade with the US, even when prospects of full blown trade talks this year look very unlikely

Ahead of the event, the TUC highlighted that if the UK government wants a closer relationship with the US, it should follow the US’ lead in including unions in trade negotiations.   

In the US, trade unions are routinely consulted on trade negotiations - and they’ve had big wins, such as securing a strong enforcement mechanism for workers’ rights in the US-Mexico-Canada agreement. This allowed the US government to challenge union-busting in three companies in Mexico.   

As a result, independent unions have now been elected at Tridonex, General Motors and Panasonic factories in Mexico.  

In Aberdeen, the TUC raised concerns with international trade secretary Trevelyan that so far UK unions have been shut out of trade negotiations - despite the government promising that unions would be included.   

As a result, none of the UK’s trade deals effectively enforce workers’ rights - and the UK has signed trade deals with countries that systematically abuse human and labour rights like Colombia and Turkey.   

A few days later, MPs on the international trade select committee pressed Trevelyan to say why unions were not consulted on an equal basis to employers. Trevelyan said

‘I want to see trade union membership on as many Trade Advisory Groups as possible. That is something we are working on at the moment.’ 

We’ll be holding her to this commitment.  

In Aberdeen, we also raised concerns about the government’s suggestion that it would legislate for the ability to override the Northern Ireland protocol.   

In recent days we have seen the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, threaten to scrap parts of the protocol entirely.   

Unions in the UK and Ireland are concerned this would undermine the Good Friday Agreement - putting peace, good jobs and rights on the line. The US Trade Ambassador has also made clear the US would not sign a trade deal with the UK if the Good Friday Agreement was jeopardised in any way. 

Other key issues raised in Aberdeen by unions was for the UK and US governments to work together to: 

  • ensure respect for workers’ rights in World Trade Organise rules 

  • develop laws to enforce workers’ rights in global supply chains, with legal penalties if abuses are found  

  • ensure adequate protections for workers’ data and all public services 

  • Support a Just Transition – this must include workers in carbon-intensive industries, like offshore oil, having their qualifications recognised in green industries like offshore wind and supporting the creation of more, good green jobs 

After the Aberdeen talks, we were pleased to see the UK and US governments release a statement pledging to: 

‘Work to develop more durable and inclusive trade policies that demonstrate that trade can be a force for good and create more opportunities for people and gender equity across the UK and U.S. Support the protection of labour rights and tackle forced labour globally…[and] green jobs and the growth of low-carbon economies.’ 

To honour these commitments, however, the government will need to change direction.

In the next few months, ministers plan to engage in trade talks with countries where governments are failing to respect fundamental labour rights, such as the Gulf States and Israel. It has also held three rounds of talks with India where there are widespread abuses of human and labour rights, including forced labour. 

Unions will continue our dialogue with the government, and keep highlighting that a truly ‘worker centred’ approach to trade must mean the UK using its international leverage to support respect for fundamental workers and human rights.  

Ensuring working people are around the table in trade talks is essential to achieving this. 

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