Workers’ rights are central to the UK’s post-Brexit trade deals

Posted on May 12, 2017

By Rosa Crawford, Policy Officer at the TUC


A critical part of trade unions’ work in the context of Brexit is to work with allies to push for future UK trade and investment agreements that support workers’ rights, decent jobs and fair pay, not just in the UK but worldwide.

In any deal between the EU and UK, trade unions are campaigning for the inclusion of legal guarantees that our employment rights will, at a minimum, match those that workers in the EU enjoy.

In the UK’s future trade deals with other countries, unions are calling for protections to ensure UK labour standards don’t fall to the levels found elsewhere, either as a direct or indirect consequence of new trade agreements. We believe trade agreement should raise standards across the board.

We are keeping a watchful eye on the trade minister Liam Fox, who has been enthusiastic about the prospect of the UK signing post-Brexit trade deals with countries such as China, India and the USA that have considerably lower levels of worker protection than the UK. In China, for example, no free trade unions are allowed while in the USA trade unions have been made effectively illegal in some states with ‘Right to Work’ legislation

It is worrying that the UK government has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of trade deals that don’t provide workers with any means to enforce their rights while providing business with additional powers to overturn workers’ rights and pressure for more privatisation of public services through ISDS-style corporate courts.

One of the most high profile recent examples is the EU-Canada (CETA) trade deal recently approved by the European Parliament – in spite of union and civil society opposition across Europe.

Less publicised but also very concerning for trade unions has been the government’s support for Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) which are free trade deals the EU has been negotiating with a number of regional blocs in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific

Trade unions across Africa released a statement last year opposing EPAs in their current form as they pose threats to workers’ rights, public services and development by depriving countries of tariff revenue and restricting the ability of governments to nurture key industries.

 While EPAs don’t currently contain a system that establishes ISDS-style corporate courts, they do include what are known as ‘rendez-vous’ clauses which would allow such provisions to be added at a later date - as the Eastern and Southern African civil society group SEATINI have highlighted.

Trade unions are calling for the UK government to change its approach for future UK trade deals.

We are calling for all future UK trade deals to involve mechanisms that mean workers can enforce their rights. This means trade unions being able to trigger investigations of labour rights abuses and sanctions where abuses are found to be taking place. The lack of sanctions in existing trade agreements with South Korea and Peru has meant that labour rights abuses have gone unaddressed.

We are also calling for all forms of corporate ISDS-style courts to be scrapped in the UK’s future trade agreements so that governments can develop industries, implement protections for workers’ rights and provide quality public services without fear of being sued by corporations. Trade unions are also supporting Trade Justice Movement’s campaign to call for UK Bilateral Investment Treaties to be rewritten to take out all ISDS-style courts that many currently contain.

The serious concern voiced by trade unions and civil society groups in the Global North and South over trade agreements like CETA and the Economic Partnership Agreements make clear that trade agreements the UK has been involved in negotiating in the past have not been in the public interest. 

The UK government must give trade unions a seat at the table as it formulates its post-Brexit trade policy - and encourage trading partners to do likewise - to ensure they protect public services, support development and Decent Work for all.