26th November 2020
Multinational business is lobbying for trade deals which will increase their profits at the expense of workers’ rights. But trade unions across the world are fighting back.
Since 2016,¬†the government has been pursuing what it has termed a ‚ÄėGlobal Britain‚Äô agenda.
Harking back to the days of Empire¬†in¬†both¬†tactics and imagery,¬†this agenda has mainly consisted of¬†the¬†government¬†joining arm in arm with¬†Global North allies¬†‚Äď¬†the¬†US,¬†Canada,¬†Australia and New Zealand –¬†to talk up the prospects of trade deals¬†while¬†pressuring Global South¬†countries¬†‚Äď most recently Kenya – to sign trade deals.
It¬†is clear¬†that¬†multinational¬†business¬†is¬†driving this agenda.
Multinationals¬†have¬†successfully lobbied for the UK¬†(like the majority of countries)¬†to pursue¬†trade deals that will increase their profits¬†by¬†reducing¬†protections for workers‚Äô rights,¬†social standards¬†and¬†protections for public services,¬†and¬†displacing¬†workers from good jobs¬†to create a more exploitable, vulnerable workforce.
But workers are fighting back.
As we have always done¬†when international capital¬†threatens¬†workers,¬†unions¬†are organising globally.
Unions around the world are¬†calling¬†for¬†trade agreements and policies¬†that¬†guarantee protection for workers‚Äô rights, public services and¬†good jobs.
In the last year, the¬†TUC has¬†joined with trade unions in¬†the¬†US,¬†Kenya,¬†Japan,¬†Australia,¬†New Zealand¬†and¬†Norway¬†–¬†key countries the UK is negotiating,¬†or has agreed,¬†trade deals with¬†–¬†to affirm these shared principles¬†in a series of joint statements.
Our shared goals are to:
- Promote good jobs
Promoting good jobs¬†in the UK means¬†first and foremost¬†securing¬†a trade deal¬†with the EU as¬†our¬†largest market, on which millions of good, unionised jobs in the UK depend.
No trade deal with¬†another¬†country can replace the EU,¬†in terms¬†of¬†significance for¬†jobs and the economy in the UK.
For¬†workers in Global South countries, it¬†is crucial that¬†the UK¬†does¬†not pursue¬†trade deals¬†that¬†pressure governments to lower tariffs¬†on domestic industries and agriculture.¬†The TUC and unions in Kenya¬†have condemned the recently agreed UK-Kenya trade deal that will compel Kenya to remove tariffs on its domestic industries.¬†This¬†will¬†allow¬†cheaper UK goods to undercut domestic¬†products in¬†Kenya,¬†displacing¬†workers from stable employment and forcing¬†them to seek work in the informal¬†economy¬†where exploitation is¬†common¬†and pay is low.
- Require respect for fundamental labour standards¬†
Offering to sign a trade deal with another country¬†gives¬†the UK significant political leverage¬†in the negotiation. This should be used to¬†ensure countries respect fundamental workers‚Äô rights as a condition for a trade deal¬†with the UK.
Unfortunately¬†so far,¬†the UK¬†has¬†failed to¬†make this a condition and has negotiated trade deals with countries such as Colombia where¬†fourteen¬†trade unionists¬†have been¬†murdered¬†in the last year¬†and widespread human rights abuses¬†are¬†taking place.
- Effectively enforce¬†respect for workers‚Äô rights
Trade deals must contain a mechanism for sanctions to be applied on countries and companies violating workers‚Äô¬†rights. Trade unions must be involved in this¬†process to ensure action is taken when workers‚Äô rights are abused.
In UK trade deals, it¬†is¬†solely up to¬†the¬†government¬†to decide whether to¬†take action. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in no action being taken against countries¬†that¬†breach commitments they made in trade deals with the UK to respect International Labour Organisation standards, such as¬†Colombia and South Korea.
It‚Äôs critical¬†that¬†the¬†UK signs¬†a trade deal with¬†the EU¬†that¬†contains¬†effective measures to enforce workers‚Äô rights and a role for trade unions in monitoring these commitments.
Securing such a trade deal would¬†set a precedent for other trade deals to enforce a high standard of workers‚Äô rights.
Without this agreement,¬†the door will be opened for standards to be lowered significantly in the UK. Given the interconnected nature of the economy, this¬†will pressure standards to be lowered across the world.
- Protect¬†public services
Trade¬†deals¬†must¬†entirely exclude public services¬†to defend them from privatisation and attacks on workers‚Äô wages and conditions.
Unfortunately,¬†the trade deals the UK has agreed¬†so far, such as the¬†recently agreed¬†UK-¬†Japan¬†trade deal, do not contain exemptions for public services and instead lock in privatisation for parts of the public sector.
While the approach of President-elect Biden towards UK-US negotiations remains to be seen, the US pharmaceutical industry¬†is¬†likely to keep pushing for the UK to drop protections on drug pricing as part of a UK-US¬†trade¬†deal to allow them to increase their profits.
- Involve trade unions in negotiations¬†
Trade deals are legal documents, so¬†every word matters.
It is crucial trade unions can comment on the text of trade negotiations to ensure they adequately provide the protections listed above for workers‚Äô rights and public¬†services.¬†And as a principle,¬†unions must¬†have access at least equal to that of employers.
Trade unions in some of the countries the UK is negotiating trade deals with,¬†such as the US,¬†can¬†comment on the text of trade negotiations.¬†The UK government¬†should¬†follow¬†a similar¬†approach.
The way ahead
The TUC¬†will continue to work with trade unions globally, developing joint¬†lobbying to push for a trade agenda that promotes these key principles. This is particularly important in countries such as Japan, Norway and now the US, where trade unions have significant influence over¬†their¬†government‚Äôs trade agenda.
By building this strength globally, we¬†can push back against the agenda of multinational companies to increase profits at any cost.