Taking Labour rights seriously in future UK Trade Policy: Protect,Promote, Empower

In June and July, everything became a little hectic for me and this blog became rather inactive. Just the odd bit of tumbleweed blowing through! One of the reasons for this was that I was busy on a project looking at how labour rights might be protected in future UK trade policy. There were lots of questions we were asking…

Could any UK’s future trade deal with the EU be used to ensure that the UK retains strong protection of labour rights once it leaves the EU?  Could future UK trade agreements with the EU and other countries seek to effectively tackle labour abuses in global supply chains? Do we need to worry that future UK trade agreements might themselves undermine labour rights, and if so, what should be done about that? And plenty of other questions besides.

Myself and my colleagues on the ‘Working Beyond the Border‘ project held a policy seminar in London on 4 July. And we presented a colourful policy brief (Front cover below) where we considered the above questions. And we produced a working paper where we analysed them in more detail (try the policy brief first, if you want more move on to the working paper!). We came up with a set of principles to help future about trade and labour linkage – Protect,Promote, Empower. I also produced blogs for the LSE and Touchstone. So if you are interested, you now have links to all of that in one place. Do get in touch if you’d like to talk more about anything you read…

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Talking trade agreements and workers’ rights – A TJM Podcast

 

Recently the Trade Justice Movement recorded me in conversation with Paul Keenlyside from TJM talking about trade agreements and workers’ rights. Paul asked me:

  • What do we mean when we talk about workers’ rights?
  • What are the threats posed to those rights by trade agreements?
  • How do the EU and US seek to protect workers’ rights and are those protections adequate?
  • What could the UK do in future trade agreements to better protect workers’ rights?

You can hear my answers as part of the TJM podcast series. 

The Ethics of UK Trade Policy – 3 events in 24 hours add up to grave cause for concern

Three events in the last 24 hours deepened my worries about the degree to which the UK government will be held to account for the ethics of its future trade policy. Liam Fox in the Philippines, Theresa May in Saudi Arabia and the publication of a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights of the UK Parliament together gave me grave cause for concern. Here is why.

Liam Fox managed to be pilloried by everyone from the Guardian to the Daily Mail yesterday for saying that the UK ‘shared values’ with the brutal regime of the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte. Dr. Fox was in the Philippines to talk about a potential trade deal with a leader who has publicly encouraged his citizens to kill drug addicts and once bragged about throwing people out of a helicopter.

Meanwhile, Theresa May was being forced to defend her trip to Saudi Arabia (also being wooed for a post-Brexit trade deal) at a time when the Saudi regime, using UK-produced weapons, is causing a humanitarian disaster in neighbouring Yemen.  May’s foreign policy doctrine, she told a reporter, is “that everything we do is in our British national interest…It’s in our British national interest to have good relations around the world so we can trade around the world…it’s in our national interests to ensure that the values that underpin us as Britons are values that we promote around the world – and that’s what we’re doing.”

Talk of ‘British values’ as the ethical underpinning of our trade relationship is extremely dangerous. Even when teaching British values in British schools, the term is open to all kinds of worrying interpretations, as research by my colleague Dr. Ali Struthers has demonstrated. Those dangers are greatly exacerbated when the conversation becomes the bedrock of ethical discourse between entire countries. The term is so malleable that it is only when we are told we share the same values as one of the world’s most brutal political leaders that people sit up and take notice.

This is where terms like human rights can play a role. They create specificity. The Saudi regime regularly detains and imprisons critics, human rights defenders and minority rights activists on vaguely worded charges; women are faced with discrimination in both law and practice and are insufficiently protected against sexual and other violence; significant numbers of executions are carried out, including of juveniles. And of course there are Saudi actions in Yemen. These are all clear violations of human rights.  Using the term ‘human rights’ allows us to measure the ethical performance of the countries we want to trade with against internationally recognized standards. But what should we do when they fall short?

Both Liam Fox and Theresa May claim to be raising concerns with their interlocutors. But leaving the EU means that we have massively reduced the chances of our concerns being taken seriously. Instead of speaking on behalf of a potential market of more than 500 million consumers, we now speak as a market of 65 million. This diminishes our bargaining power. We need to very carefully scrutinize the claims that what remains of our influence will be used on ‘values’ rather than commercial interests.

The UK Parliament will be vital in that scrutiny process in the years to come. It was therefore disappointing to see the Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights in their report published today on business and human rights, fail to show a detailed and nuanced understanding of trade and human rights issues (they were much better on pointing out the limitations of other government policy on business and human rights).

First, in their discussion of the EU’s trade policy (which, it is argued, could be a model for future UK trade agreements), they mix up human rights provisions, sustainable development provisions and labour provisions as if they are one and the same thing. They are not. Human rights and labour standards are handled very differently in different parts of EU agreements – UK parliamentarians need to understand how relevant mechanisms operate much better, if they are to evaluate their effectiveness.

Second, the report welcomed the UK government’s commitment to include human rights provisions, equivalent to those in EU trade agreements, in its own trade deals. There are limitations with the EU’s labour and human rights provisions (as I have previously discussed) which should be more thoroughly interrogated.* But, most fundamentally, this endorsement by the Joint Committee on Human Rights fails to recognize the complexity of translating human rights in law into human rights in practice.

One, relatively optimistic study of EU practice on trade and human rights concluded that “human rights conditionality seems to have some clear results with third countries over which the EU holds substantial economic leverage, which might … suggest that the latter is more important than legalisation for promoting compliance.”

We need a UK Parliament that recognizes our heavily reduced post-Brexit economic leverage, and in light of that, carefully scrutinizes our government’s efforts to strike trade deals with countries with very dubious human rights records. And we need human rights advocates within the UK Parliament who much more carefully interrogate what a truly ethical UK trade policy actually entails.

 

* The Joint Committee’s report also encourages the UK government to do better than the EU on enforcement (but the devil here is in the detail). It also encourages assessment of human rights impacts of trade agreements before entering into deals – the EU already does this, but rather superficially. Again more specificity is required about what a human rights impact process should entail.

An EU-UK trade deal; What role can it play in protecting rights?

A recent article in the Guardian, highlighted a letter signed by 50 leading human rights lawyers. It raises concerns about the threat of a UK human rights crisis post-Brexit and argues that the UK’s post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU might be part of the solution. This letter, and today’s triggering of the Brexit process, prompted me to think about the complex relationship between trade and rights, and how the UK’s post-Brexit trade deals might affect that situation (for better and worse). Some initial thoughts below…..

The current UK conservative government has for a long time flirted with abolishing the UK’s Human Rights Act. The letter by human rights supporters raises the concern that, once outside the EU, the UK is also free to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (all EU members must sign up to the ECHR, but once you leave, this isn’t an issue). The letter also raises concerns about the UK “trading away protections against torture for grubby trade deals with foreign tyrants.” Hence the crisis.

The signatories to the letter are right that our changing economic relationships with the EU and other nations can potentially have a great affect on rights protection. And their proposed solution tackles some of the problems.

The letter’s signatories call for “the EU to make Britain’s membership of the ECHR a legally binding requirement for any future free trade deal with the UK.” This is a very important step. It would potentially* lock in the UK’s ECHR commitments and ensure that the UK government cannot unilaterally decide at a later date to abandon the ECHR, a step which “could embolden populist leaders in countries such as Hungary and Poland to abandon domestic and international commitments to human rights.”

Using trade agreements to ensure against a human rights ‘race to the bottom’ across Europe is vital. But should we also be thinking beyond this about a range of other protections that the UK’s future trade deals should engage with? For instance, protection against the UK creating a more ‘competitive’ economy by eroding the rights of workers;  protection for the human rights of vulnerable individuals in countries with troubling human rights records which the UK now wants to create trade agreements with; and protection that ensures the UK’s future trade agreements become building blocks towards better working conditions for workers all over the world, rather than reinforcing existing problems of slavery, forced labour, discrimination, poverty pay etc. in global supply chains.

The current anti-globalization backlash in many western countries has intensified critical engagement with trade agreements and their impacts.  Populist political movements all over the globe are gaining political momentum based on the idea that trade policies (as part of bigger processes of globalisation) are not working for ordinary people. Proponents of EU trade agreements argue that they already take these concerns seriously. EU trade officials point to human rights and labour rights clauses in trade agreements as evidence of their commitment to making sure that trade produces good social outcomes. But are such clauses effective? There is an increasing amount of evidence that suggests current labour rights and human rights provisions in EU trade agreements have had very limited positive effects.

The Post-Brexit EU-UK trade negotiations present a (perhaps tragic) opportunity to revisit this situation and re-think what a rights agenda within trade agreements might achieve. Certainly provisions which ensure that the UK cannot make a unilateral decision to leave the ECHR are of vital importance to human rights supporters in the UK and across Europe. But a more expansive agenda is required if we are to address the wide range of rights issues alluded to above. I am trying to work out what this might look like. More detailed thoughts on these issues from me over the next few months……..

* I say ‘potentially’ because this depends on how the requirements are constructed. Most importantly, the penalties must be sufficiently serious to ensure the commitment is taken seriously.

How do we take the interests of workers more seriously in future trade agreements?

Trade policy appears to be under greater public scrutiny than ever before at the moment. Populist political movements all over the globe are gaining political momentum based on the idea that trade policies (as part of bigger processes of globalisation) are not working for ordinary people. Many, including China’s President, Xi Jinping, are warning that the backlash against globalization looks likely to take the form of widespread nationalist protectionism – i.e. greatly increased barriers to goods and services from foreign countries. Such policies, it is argued, would reek havoc on many of the biggest ‘losers from globalisation’ by making their lives more expensive and reducing their opportunities to trade the fruits of their labour on global markets.

Is there an alternative vision which remains global in outlook, but takes more seriously the impact of trade policies on ordinary people across the globe? An important starting point for such an approach is to scrutinize current trade policy, to look at the ways in which it attempts to address the social dimensions of trade policy, to understand the limitations and deficiencies in these efforts, and to think about how they can be overcome.

Over the last couple of years I have been working with colleagues to study efforts within EU trade agreements to address the social dimensions of trade policy. DG Trade (the part of the European Commission responsible for trade policy) recognises that its trade agreements have come under increased public and civil society scrutiny in recent years and that a key element of the response to this is improving ‘sustainable economic, social and environmental conditions’ in the EU and trade partner countries. At the centre of the EU’s policy response are the Trade and Sustainable Development Chapters that all EU trade agreements contain. On the social side, the key provisions in TSD chapters are labour standards provisions which commit the EU and its trading partners to monitoring the social effects of trade agreements, and to engaging in dialogue and co-operation in relation to the worst labour abuses.

Our initial research findings suggest there are serious limitations in the functioning of these labour provisions, and that we need to think seriously about how these limitations can be overcome. On 2 March in Brussels, myself and my colleagues involved in this project are holding a policy seminar to present our research findings and to discuss possible ways of overcoming the limitations which we have identified. To find out more about the seminar, and to register a place for yourself, please see our registration page. I hope that these kind of discussions are a building block towards thinking about a progressive trade policy that puts workers’ interests at the centre of future trade policy-making processes.

 

Should we feel sorry for Liam Fox?

I spoke on a panel at the end of last year about post-Brexit trade policy and I told the audience I would try to tackle three really tough challenges. The first challenge was to make them feel sorry for the UK’s Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox.

OK, so it was a silly challenge, aimed partly at waking the audience up and giving them something to laugh about. But I was also trying to make a more serious point about the massive problems facing those in charge of developing UK trade policy. Below is a video of my talk, so you can see if it makes you feel compassionate.  You can also judge for yourself whether I managed to tackle my other two challenges (saying something intelligible about the UK’s post-Brexit trade policy, and inspiring the audience to become involved in the debate about what that trade policy should look like).

Crucially, I end by arguing that we need to start thinking now about how the UK’s trade policy can work to effectively protect a broader social and environmental agenda. Working on that is my biggest New year’s resolution!