The UK has triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and is negotiating its departure from the European Union. We will have to wait and see what the UK’s future relationship with the EU will look like. But the UK government has repeatedly stated that it wants to leave the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, and to negotiate its own trade deals with the EU and trade partners around the world.
So how can future UK trade policy protect workers rights? This is a key issue in Brexit negotiations. Michael Barnier, Chief EU Negotiator on Brexit, has said that high levels of social protection are vital to an EU-UK trade agreement. The EU-UK deal could be used by the UK government to bind itself to its commitments to protect and enhance the rights of workers in the UK by ensuring that EU laws on employment rights continue to apply to workers.
Looking more expansively, future UK trade policy with the EU and other partners could look to tackle abuses in global supply chains, as the EU’s trade policy attempts to do. And perhaps UK trade agreements could be negotiated with an overarching purpose of enhancing labour rights and working conditions in both parties – helping to create a trading system that really ‘works for everyone’.
Crucial to achieving any of this is telling the difference between labour provisions that are meaningful, robust and worthwhile, and those that are window-dressing, insubstantial, and incapable of achieving real results for workers.
Over the last three years our research team have been examining labour provisions in EU trade agreements and visiting some of the EU’s trade partners to find out from trade union officials and a range of other key stakeholders what is happening on the ground. What we have found is that there is much cause for concern. Commitments on paper are not, for the most part, translating into real action for the benefit of workers.
For instance, in South Korea, there has been a government crackdown on trade unions. The European Commission’s stance that dialogue and co-operation are the appropriate mechanisms for tackling this issue has been seriously questioned by trade union representatives, who argue stronger measures are required. In the Caribbean, where trade unions and other civil society actors are calling for monitoring of the social impacts of the CARIFORUM-EU Economic Partnership Agreement, efforts to develop a monitoring process are only just beginning (eight years after the agreement came into force).
We have therefore concluded that a different approach is needed to (1) safeguard the UK’s labour rights commitments when it leaves the EU, and (2) ensure that UK trade policy is having a positive (and not negative) impact on workers in the UK and its trading partners. We have identified three principles – ‘protect, promote, empower’ – to help guide future debate about the types of commitments that are needed in future UK trade policy.
On 4 July, at the British Library we will be discussing our ideas, joined by Rosa Crawford from the TUC and Paul Keenlyside from the Trade Justice Movement. We would very much welcome you to be part of the debate. Please register here if you are interested in joining us.
James Harrison is an Associate Professor (Reader) and Co-Director of the Centre for Human Rights in Practice at the University of Warwick. This article first appeared on the TUC Touchstone blog. Copyright © 2017 ToUChstone, Trades Union Congress.