Free trade and workers’ rights: we need to talk

Bringing workers’ rights into trade negotiations is necessary and it’s not impossible. Trade questions and employment questions are intrinsically linked. In the US, there is an obsession with the idea that free trade has destroyed jobs.  In the UK, trade unions have criticised their government for making trade agreements with countries that abuse workers’ rights. Their research suggests that more than a third of the non-EU nations with which the UK has secured trade deals are abusing workers’ rights.

Bringing “outside” issues into trade negotiations is difficult. These are already very complicated. Apart from the parties directly involved, each side knows that concessions made will have consequences for any other agreement that they are going to enter into. And trade negotiations have now gone far beyond questions of tariffs and quotas to include all sorts of other issues, from technical barriers to trade, investment conditions, not to mention the very contentious questions in services trade. Trade negotiators themselves might say that the last thing they need is another dimension to the arguments in the form of workers’ rights.  And they might also say well. what about human rights, the environment and climate change? Let’s not forget also that the UK, after Brexit, is just beginning to learn how to negotiate trade agreements, since that was a task that for the last forty years and more was delegated to the European Commission.

But even if a thing is difficult, it is not necessarily impossible. And trade purists must recognise that when countries deny workers rights, this is unfair competition and thus a market distortion.

Help is at hand. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has been at work since 1919. The UK was a founder member and contributes to its programmes. The other side of the trade negotiation will also be a member. The ILO is well aware of what is the status of worker’s rights not just in different countries but in different sectors also. Some formal way of involving ILO advice in advance of the negotiations can be found. The participants will then have an independent view of where are the most burning questions (in both countries). When different sectors are under discussion, at least some of the necessary improvements in workers’ rights can then be built into the relevant chapters of the agreement.