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.


Business and human rights: A Lacuna Special Edition

This month, I edited a special issue of Lacuna Magazine on business and human rights. As I finalized the edition, I was reading about the world’s global business elite gathering in Davos for their annual get-together. They were being chastised by everyone from Theresa May and the Financial Times  to Oxfam for their “to share the gains of globalisation with its losers”. It seemed very fitting in this context that we were examining what companies are doing about their human rights responsibilities.

If you read one article from the special issue, read my interview with Kendyl Salcito. She talks about her work as a pioneer in the field of human rights and business, researching the human rights impacts of business operations in 12 countries on 4 continents.  She gives us an insight into what it means to properly examine the human rights impacts of corporate activity, and the challenges in seeking to change company behavior. She also voices her concerns that her work is the exception rather than the rule in the ‘human rights and business’ world. Kendyl fears that the United Nation’s flagship human rights initiative, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, is not helping here. She argues that “human rights due diligence [which the UN prescribes], has been so weakly defined that companies are using the term to mean whatever they want it to, diluting its value”.

Putting the edition together has made me reflect again on whether there is sufficient critical engagement with the deficiencies and limitations of initiatives like the UNGPs. And it also makes me more certain than ever that the human rights and business world should be paying more attention to the actions of inspirational individuals like Kendyl who are making change happen.

Sir Ivan Rogers’ Letter – Don’t trivialise the message on trade negotiations!

It never looks good for anyone involved when a senior civil servant’s critical resignation letter becomes public. When that man is the lead ambassador in the most toxic political negotiations in most of our life times, the reaction is bound to be polarized. Accusations and counter-accusations are currently flying around the newsrooms. Is this just sour grapes from an anti-Brexit civil servant with an axe to grind or do his views reflect genuine concern about the incoherence and naiveté of the British negotiating position?


There were two sections of the letter that caught my eye, as they reinforced existing concerns about the lack of knowledge and expertise about issues vital to the negotiating process in the British government. First there is a passage on the importance of the trade deals we make:

“Contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen when it is not thwarted by authorities: increasing market access to other markets and consumer choice in our own, depends on the deals, multilateral, plurilateral and bilateral that we strike, and the terms that we agree.”

This seems to imply that some senior government officials/ministers are seriously underestimating the complexity of negotiating trade deals. As my post from yesterday discussed (watch the video), trade deals are not just about agreeing to reduce taxes on imports and exports (not itself easy). They are about rules of origin, quotas, subsidies, investment protection, intellectual property, sanitary standards and much, much more. And our relationship with the EU dictates the terms of trade we can then negotiate with other countries. Minsters must start to understand this complexity if they are to have any hope of having a coherent and competent negotiating position.

Sir Ivan goes on to say that “serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall.” The worry is that very complex issues are being discussed by people without a full understanding of that complexity, and they are not listening to advice from outside. Whatever the motivations of the messenger, the message needs to be taken very seriously.

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!

Theresa May in Bahrain: How should human rights influence post-Brexit trade policy?

Theresa May is today in Bahrain to attend the the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) annual summit. She will sit down with the leaders of  Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emrates and discuss, among other things, a potential new trade deal with the region.

Saying anything concrete and specific in these discussions will be difficult, for exactly the same reasons I discussed in a recent post about Theresa May’s visit to India for trade discussions.  Until potential trade partners know what the UK’s post-Brexit trade relationship is with the EU, it is difficult to negotiate. Most importantly, unless the UK leaves the Customs Union,  the UK government won’t be doing a trade deal with the GCC because it will not be able to offer reductions in tariffs and all the other goodies that such countries want from the UK.

But putting these concerns aside, the trip to Bahrain raises questions about the ethics of the UK’s post-Brexit trade policy. Human rights groups have raised concerns that commercial interests are what is driving the trip, and that Theresa May will fail to speak out about human rights abuses, particularly in Bahrain. In a statement, the groups reported that “[s]ince June 2016, the Government of Bahrain has dissolved the largest political party in the country, stripped the citizenship of the country’s most senior Shia cleric, prosecuted human rights activists and prevented them from travel, and placed an entire community under constant police blockade.”

Theresa May said before she left for the Gulf that “There will be some people in the UK who say we shouldn’t seek stronger trade and security ties with these countries because of their record on human rights. But we don’t uphold our values and human rights by turning our back on this issue. We achieve far more by stepping up, engaging with these countries and working with them.”

Since 2012, the UK has been providing technical assistance to Bahrain to work towards the reform of the police and judiciary. But the human rights situation seems to have got worse and not better over that period. And we should be wary about signing a trade deal with countries like Bahrain while at the same time ‘engaging’  over human rights issues. There are serious dangers that commercial concerns will then be prioritized over human rights abuses. My own research into processes of dialogue in EU trade agreements on social and environmental issues within trade agreements shows that these dialogues are under-resourced and ineffective.

We are at a crucial point in the development of our post-Brexit trade policy. For leaders of countries in the GCC to take the UK seriously in trade negotiations, Theresa May would have to tell them that she plans to leave the Customs Union. It seems wrong that they might know this before the UK population does. It also seems deeply worrying that our trading relationships may be shifting fundamentally away from Europe and towards regions like the Gulf, without any discussion about the underlying values that trade policy should be based on.



Causing a scene over a £5 note

I caused a small scene today with a woman in her seventies at a Christmas Craft Fair in Leamington Spa. And its all because of the new £5 note…


I’ve been a vegetarian for 24 years. When I started out, there were often awkward social situations. Restaurants or pubs would have nothing on the menu for me. Friends would serve me chicken and then look bemused when I explained that vegetarianism extended beyond beef and lamb. I remember once trying to explain the concept to a group of elderly relatives and being told, to nods of approval all round,  “what utter nonsense”.

But times have changed. There are now millions of vegetarians in the UK. Getting good vegetarian food is easy in restaurants, supermarkets and dinners at my friends’ houses. I can buy vegetarian wine, shoes, even belts. People (at least appear to!) listen earnestly when I explain my concerns about the way animals are treated in our industrialized agricultural system.

So it was a shock last week when I read that our new £5 notes contain beef tallow. And today, doing my Christmas shopping, was the first time since I heard the news that I was confronted with one. A lady on a craft stall gave my change. And there it was, a fleshy fiver. “I am afraid I am a vegetarian” I blurted. She just looked confused. And the more I spoke, the more confused she looked. In the end I just took it.  I was beginning to feel like a mad conspiracy theorist talking about the meat in our money.

Vegetarians in the UK have complained in large numbers – a petitionagainst the new note now has more than 125,00 signatories. I read this evening that the inventor of the £5 note has called UK vegetarians ‘absolutely stupid’. The amount of tallow used in making the £5 note is apparently very small, and the new fiver may have other environmental and health benefits.* But what he doesn’t understand is that for me and others like me, the point of vegetarianism is to be able to say “not in my name”, to refuse to participate in systems of production that do not  have respect for animal life. And avoiding the use of bank notes is a little tricky….

I failed to say “not in my name” today to the new £5 note. It defeated me where the pubs, restaurants and elderly relatives of two decades ago failed. But what gives me hope is the uproar it has caused. There is the petition, the vegetarian restaurant refusing to accept new fivers, the Bank of England feeling the need to say it is “looking for solutions”.  There are no guarantees for what happens next (and I’ll be watching carefully to see what solutions appear). But if alternatives are found, then perhaps we can start looking at other products which perhaps don’t need to be made from animals either.


* I have read nothing that suggests the tallow is essential to the process, and that vegetarian alternatives could not be found. If anyone does have different information, I would be very interested to know.