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General Council Report 2020

TUC Congress 2020
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Brexit and Trade
Brexit and trade

3.1 Introduction

In January 2020, the UK left the European Union and entered negotiations with the EU on the nature of our future trading relationship. Our work in this highly volatile and uncertain period has been guided by the Congress 2019 General Council statement on Brexit, which reiterated the TUC’s three tests on workers’ rights, jobs, and protection of the Good Friday Agreement for any Brexit deal.

The TUC continues to press government to secure a decent trade deal with the EU. We know that aligning closely to EU rules is vital if barrier- and tariff-free trade in goods and services is to be retained, protecting jobs and rights and keeping our public services safe from enforced privatisation.

3.2 Political engagement

In Summer 2019, the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out his ambition to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement that had been provisionally agreed between the UK and the EU in 2018. The deadline for agreement had already been extended, initially from March to April 2019 and then to the end of October 2019. This raised a significant risk that the UK might leave the EU without a deal.

In late August 2019, parliament was suspended, dramatically shortening the time available to debate the government’s Brexit response. The TUC called out this ploy to duck democratic scrutiny. In line with composite 4, we set out our support for any democratic initiative to stop a disastrous no-deal outcome.

In September, the TUC published Consequences of No Deal, a report highlighting the consequences a no deal would have for jobs, wages and different sectors of the economy as well as rights. In October, the TUC also launched a new guide for trade union reps on the government’s EU Settled Status scheme, seeking to build solidarity with EU citizens in the UK.

Eventually the EU and the UK agreed to a revised protocol for Northern Ireland, which paved the way for agreement on the overall terms of exit. In October 2019, the prime minister announced a Brexit deal had been achieved. The TUC assessed the deal’s scope and concluded that it could not be supported. 

By moving away from a close economic relationship with the EU and any commitment to a level playing field, the deal put people’s jobs, rights and livelihoods at risk. We called on all MPs to vote against it.

However, following a general election in late 2019, the government won a new majority and the Withdrawal Agreement was ratified in January. On 31 January 2020, the UK ceased to be a member state of the EU and entered a transition period to last until December 2020. Negotiations began on the detail of our future trading relationship.

Along with the Withdrawal Agreement, the EU and the UK agreed a Political Declaration outlining the scope of the future partnership. The TUC called for a deal with the EU that protects jobs, rights at work and peace in Northern Ireland, in line with Congress’ position, confirmed every year since 2016. This is a stance also backed up by a post-election poll in December, which found that most voters – including Conservatives – wanted workers’ rights protected and enhanced.

Over this period the TUC general secretary has remained in regular contact with Michael Gove MP, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, on a range of issues including UK-EU trade. We also continue to press the government on the lack of engagement with unions on the UK’s approach to the EU talks.

We have been in close contact with the Labour opposition. The TUC has met with Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Rachel Reeves MP, and raised concerns with her around the UK’s lack of participation in EU procurement calls and the lack of government trade union engagement.

The TUC has also continued to work closely with the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and sister organisations across Europe to make the case for workers’ rights and jobs in trade agreements.

3.3 EU-UK trade negotiations

Ahead of the publication of the UK and EU negotiating mandates in February, the TUC general secretary engaged with representatives from EU member states and the General Council spokesperson on Europe, Unite Assistant General Secretary Steve Turner, met with the EU chief negotiator. Both argued for a deal that protected jobs through tariff-free trade. They also set out the case for protecting rights through a legally binding ‘level playing field’ clause that would prevent EU-derived workers’ rights from being rolled back, as well as ensuring these protections kept pace with EU standards going forward.

The TUC general secretary also discussed these issues and the involvement of trade unions, both in the negotiations and the monitoring of the agreement’s implementation, with EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan.

In March 2020, negotiations on the future partnership between the EU and the UK started but were soon disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. From early on it became evident that the EU and UK had different objectives, notably on the level playing field. By the time the EU and UK held a high-level conference in June to assess progress, very little headway had been made: the UK restated its position not to seek an extension of the transition period and the prospect of no deal reared its head once again.

In July 2020, the TUC produced a new parliamentary briefing on the risks of no deal in the context of the pandemic, highlighting the employment rights most at risk including protections in case of insolvency, collective redundancies and information and consultation rights. In the context of a damaging recession, we also set out the importance of a good deal that protects jobs, rather than a no-deal outcome that would put employment at even more risk.

3.4 Trade and trade deals

The TUC has continued to call for a good deal with the EU to be the UK’s trade priority, to secure workers’ rights and support good jobs. We have highlighted the danger of the government pursuing trade deals with a number of other countries, such as the US, as a substitute for a good deal with the EU, as such deals would threaten workers’ rights and public services. In February, the TUC gave evidence to the House of Lords EU Internal Market Sub-Committee on the importance of including level-playing-field commitments in a future deal.

In line with resolution 15, the TUC campaigned to protect public services in all trade deals.

In March, the TUC released a joint statement with its US counterpart, the AFL-CIO, stating that any UK-US deal must contain effectively enforceable commitments to respect workers’ rights and exclude public services. The statement was clear that a deal must not contain any kind of Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system and called for the UK government to prioritise a good deal with the EU.

In the same month, the government introduced its Trade Bill, which sought to make provision for the implementation of international trade agreements. The TUC gave evidence to the Trade Bill Committee in June, raising concerns that the Bill provides no representation for trade unions on the Trade Remedies Authority – the body that will oversee the UK’s anti-dumping measures; provides no role for parliament or unions in trade negotiations; and provides no guarantee that trade deals will contain exemptions for public services or enforceable labour standards.

In June, the TUC gave evidence to the Commons International Trade Committee to highlight the threats a US trade deal would pose to the NHS and other public services, as well as to workers’ rights and good jobs.

The TUC used meetings with Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss MP and Trade Ministers Conor Burns MP, Greg Hands MP and Ranil Jayawardena MP, as well as its position on the government’s Strategic Trade Advisory Group (STAG) (where the TUC is represented by Deputy General Secretary Paul Nowak), to push for trade union objectives in trade deals and for unions to be involved in trade negotiations. 

Through these efforts, the TUC has secured places for trade unions on over half of the government’s expert trade advisory groups (ETAGs) on sectoral and thematic aspects of trade. The government is now also actively considering how to share parts of trade negotiations with unions.

The TUC has also raised concerns that the government’s proposal to establish 10 freeports with looser regulatory requirements risks displacing good jobs and increasing tax evasion.

The TUC developed a joint statement with Japanese counterpart RENGO on the UK-Japan trade negotiations, releasing a joint statement when trade talks began in June. The statement called for the trade priority of the UK to be a deal with the EU and set out that any UK-Japan agreement should protect workers’ rights, public services and jobs.

TUC policy officer Rosa Crawford is a member of the EU Domestic Advisory Groups for the EU-Canada and EU-Japan trade deals, which push for strengthening of labour rights commitments in international trade deals.

3.5 Global trade

The TUC is working with its counterparts in the US, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the East African Community countries with which the government has launched trade talks. We raised concerns with MPs on the Trade Bill Committee that post-Brexit ‘continuity deals’ – such as those with South Korea and Colombia – should have effective processes for enforcing commitments on labour rights, with trade unions empowered to trigger investigations into violations of rights. This builds on work undertaken by the TUC at EU level in its membership of EU domestic advisory groups (civil society monitoring bodies) for the EU-Canada and EU-Japan trade deals.

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