ByÂ Adrian Weir â Assistant Secretary, Campaign for Trade Union Freedom
On 25th February back bench Labour MP John Healy secured a Commons debate on the Transatlantic Trade & Industry Partnership, the proposed free trade deal between the European Union and the United States.
Â Amongst the usual waffle about how unbridled free trade has lifted millions out of poverty there were some good points made by mainly Labour MPs about the inequities of the Investor State Dispute Settlement contained within the proposed free trade treaty. The ISDS would establish an extra-judicial court system where multinational corporations could sue nation states whose national legislation was deemed a barrier to free trade.
Â There are many examples of these quasi-court decisions from around the world not least in Slovakia where the government tried to bring its health insurance system back from the private to the public sector and was sued â a matter made light of by the responsible Secretary of State, Kenneth Clarke.
Telling contributions about ISDS were made by Katy Clark, Jeremy Corbyn, Jim Sheridan and Ian Lavery. There were also serious contributions made on labour rights.
Â Jim Sheridan said: âAs Chair of the Unite the union group in Parliament, I have spent my career fighting for the rights of workers here in the UK. Now I see an agreement that could undermine their rights and an opportunity lost to support our friends in the unions in the US.â
âThe US has ratified only 14 of the 190 International Labour Organisation conventions, unlike EU member states who have ratified them all. I understand that with this anti-union Government and the pull of the US Republicans we are unlikely to see the inclusion of rights to organise, rights to bargain collectively or as a last resort rights to strike, but there are some rights that are applicable across the EU, such as those on information and consultation, agency and temporary workers, and health and safety, which we could and should see included. If nothing else, the deal should not lead to a watering down of workersâ rights.â
âI am pleased that the EU is consulting with an advisory group of trade unionists, non-governmental organisations and employers, and that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is involved in a similar process. I hope that those in charge of negotiations listen to these groups, who I am sure, will be keeping a close eye on labour rights, and act on their advice.â
Ian Lavery, Chair of the Trade Union Group of MPs said: âLabour rights are also extremely important. As I think has been mentioned, the US has ratified only 14 of the 190 International Labour Organisation conventions âamong the lowest in the world. It has ratified only two of the eight core conventions dealing with forced labour, child labour, freedom of association and discrimination. It has not ratified conventions 87 or 98, and is almost certainly in breach of both, according to the ILO Freedom of Association Committee.â
âThe Wall Street Journal is not a newspaper that I normally acquire in the morning, nor want to read, but on this occasion I read a report that stated: âCongressional Republicans are only willing to agree TTIP if extending EU labour standardsâŚto the US is ruled out in advance.ââ
âIt basically states that congressional Republicans will agree to a TTIP only if the extension of any workersâ rights is ruled out before the TTIP is agreed in its entirety. If that is the case, it will be interesting to see what the EU has to say. I would have thought we would have understood that discussions would take place without any preconditions, and if there are preconditions â if that is what the Republicans are saying â perhaps we in the UK have little to concern ourselves about.â
âMany of those in US unions see a labour chapter in the TTIP as potentially opening up a European-style social model and worker dialogue with employers, which in some parts of the USA I think would be seen as a huge advantage. That has been explained clearly by the Communication Workers of America and the United Steelworkers. Organisations that have been terribly supportive of a TTIP that would enhance labour rights within the framework include the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The American Federation of Labor has a loud, clear voice and a mandate of 11 million workers.â
On the issue of workplace health and safety, Willie Bain said: âremoving barriers for EU exporters should not mean removing hard-won protections in the workplace. There should be a levelling up of standards, not a race to the bottom. We know that US workplace fatalities are three times as high as those in the EU. Simply by having a system of mutual recognition without recognising the protections we have at EU level could lead to concerns among workers.â
The European Commission has opened a public consultation about ISDS which civil society organisations will contribute but as our friends in Parliament have noted we need some assurances on labour rights, not least on the ILO core labour standards.