The TUC has today slammed the UK government’s “total disregard” for workers around the world and says it is “giving countries a free pass” on “abhorrent” labour rights abuses in a rush to agree trade deals.
The criticism comes as the TUC publishes its analysis of the ITUC’s new annual global rights index, which reveals the UK government is in active trade talks with 13 countries where there is “no guarantee of workers’ rights” including where it is due to the “breakdown in the rule of law”, or where there is “systematic violation of workers’ rights”.
These countries include Brazil (which is listed among the ‘ten worst countries for workers’), India, Israel (for its treatment of Palestinian workers in Israel and the illegal occupied territories) and all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – with which the UK started to negotiate a trade deal last week.
The TUC says the UK should suspend trade talks with these countries.
The union body adds that this “shameful” approach to trade deals has been a consistent failure since the government took office in 2019.
The union body’s analysis of the ITUC report reveals that, of the 67 non-EU countries with whom the government has negotiated trade deals with:
Five are listed among the ten worst countries in the world for workers (Colombia, Egypt, Eswatini, Guatemala, Turkey);
Ten are placed among the 44 countries where there is “no guarantee of workers’ rights” whatsoever, including Ecuador, Jordan and Korea;
Eight are placed among the 38 countries where there is “systematic violation of workers’ rights”, including Australia, Cameroon and Vietnam
Continued failure to consult unions
The union body warns that continued failure to properly consult unions in trade talks is leaving workers around the world worse off – noting that “time and time again” the government has agreed trade deals with no enforceable labour standards.
The TUC says trade deals can have a significant impact on workers' jobs and rights – but without the right protections they can lead to a race to the bottom on standards and displace good jobs.
The union body says trade unions need to be at the table to make sure trade deals are in workers’ interests.
But the UK government has not yet confirmed all of the TUC’s union nominees for its Trade Advisory Groups that are consulted on the text of trade negotiations – and as a result, trade unions still don’t have seats on the influential groups. Currently only businesses have seats on the groups.
The TUC is calling on the government to come good on its promise to include unions in the trade advisory groups, which it first made eighteen months ago.
Workers’ rights in the UK
The ITUC report cites the P&O scandal, where 800 workers were sacked with no notice and no consultation, as a pertinent example of labour abuses around the world.
The TUC warns that “a government that readily agrees deals with countries that abuse rights abroad is one that won't stick up for rights at home either”.
The union body is calling on ministers to stop attacking fundamental trade union rights and workers’ rights and instead, deliver the boost to workplace rights it has promised so many times.
TUC Deputy General Secretary Paul Nowak said:
"The UK is giving countries a free pass on the most abhorrent labour abuses in order to secure trade deals.
“Time and time again, this government has hurtled into deals with some of the worst countries in the world for workers.
“And now, ministers are in talks with a dozen countries which are some of the worst offenders when it comes to workers’ rights. This will fuel a race to the bottom on rights.
“A government that readily agrees deals with countries that abuse rights abroad is one that won't stick up for rights at home either.
“Instead of treating trade agreements as publicity tools, the government should be using its leverage on the global stage to ensure respect for fundamental workers’ rights.
“It’s time for ministers to start meaningfully consulting with unions during trade talks. That’s how you get trade deals that work for working people.”
Sharan Burrows, ITUC General Secretary, said:
“Workers are on the front lines as they face the impact of multiple areas of crisis: historic levels of inequality, the climate emergency, the loss of lives and livelihoods from the pandemic, and the devastating impact of conflict.
“And workplaces are the front line in the fight for democracy. Brutal governments know how much this matters when four out of five countries block collective bargaining and one third of countries violently attack workers.
“Trade unionists have been murdered on every continent. Where people stand up for rights and social justice they are silenced with brutal repression.”
Notes to editors:
The ITUC Global Rights Index Report for 2022 can be accessed on request from the TUC media team.
The ITUC defines workers’ rights using the same core International Labour Organisation principles recognised by the UK government, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of forced labour, and the abolition of child labour.
The 67 non-EU countries the UK has trade deals with are listed on the Department for International Trade’s website
Palestine receives a 5+ rating – the worst rating – because of the treatment of Palestinian workers by the Israeli government in Israel and the Occupied Territories.
The eleven countries the UK is currently in active talks referred above with are: Bahrain, Brazil, Burundi, India, Israel (because Palestine receives a 5+ rating due to the treatment of Palestinian workers by the Israeli government in Israel and the Occupied Territories), Kuwait, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Uganda and United States of America
Trade talks in this instance refers to there being a declared intention for the UK to begin trade negotiations.
- About the TUC: The Trades Union Congress (TUC) exists to make the working world a better place for everyone. We bring together the 5.5 million working people who make up our 48 member unions. We support unions to grow and thrive, and we stand up for everyone who works for a living.
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