Trade and workers’ rights

The end of the working week and my inbox brings me good news via the TUC’s International Department that the European Economic and Social Committee – an EU advisory institution bringing together representatives of workers, employers and civil society more broadly – has almost unanimously agreed an Opinion on the trade and sustainable development chapters of EU free trade agreements.

The EESC’s own-initiative Opinion, which plays an important part in the EU’s consultative decision-making process, makes a number of recommendations of interest to trade unions in the area of the EU’s future free trade agreements, including – amongst others – that:

– governments and companies should demonstrate respect for standards set out in the ILO’s Decent Work agenda, including – but not limited to – ratifying and upholding core ILO Conventions

– free trade agreements should establish an independent labour secretariat and collective complaints mechanism to oversee commitments to uphold ILO Conventions

– a dispute settlement procedure should be started without delay, with a mandate to substantively enforce compliance, where abuses are detected

– civil society monitoring mechanisms should be established in free trade agreements with a view to independent triggering of investigations where there are violations of the commitments to uphold ILO Conventions.

All well and good – and some of the reportage is focused on the failings of current free trade deals largely with the far east, as well as with TTIP/CETA (and other) proposals for free trade deals for which the EU has come under sustained criticism, and with some justification, in recent years.

Except that it is impossible currently to review the normal work of EU institutions from within the UK unless through the unique prism of Brexit. Once the UK has, er, regained its sovereignty, and is free to sign free trade deals with whomever it wants, then the ‘bespoke’* free trade deal it is seeking with the EU is likely to (should, in theory) feature precisely the sorts of commitments and obligations that the EESC is requesting the EU takes to future trade deals. Much depends on how the European Commission responds to the Opinion, but it is bound within the checks and balances under which the EU’s decision-making structure works to find it persuasive, aided not least by the near-unanimity with which the Opinion was agreed within the EESC. This is particularly important with Brexit in view not least in the context of the discussion which has been circulating around a UK/EU free trade deal based on a ‘Canada+++’ model (were, indeed, this to be on offer), and the impact this might have on employment and worker rights.

The Commission should make a quick, and positive, response ensuring that the Opinion does indeed form the EU’s approach to future free trade deals.

It is the case that the UK has ratified all eight of the core ILO Conventions mentioned chiefly by the EESC – although it is occasionally up in the dock even on these, including on freedom of association; and, most recently, in the context of its record on tripartite consultation (p. 430). However, the UK isn’t, so far, a serial abuser. Nevertheless, the warm words coming out of No. 10 on protecting workers’ rights after Brexit – and being countermanded by mavericks like Johnson, Gove and Whittingdale – with the debate here being most recently summarised by Owen Tudor at the TUC, may well melt away in the heat of the fires of desperation once Brexit realities start to bite. Brexit changes everything and, apart from no-one sensible trusting a Tory with their rights anyway, the future is – as the folks at the European Research Group have cottoned on – entirely up for grabs. In this context, the paper promises of No. 10 are worth precisely nothing, in contrast to which the EESC Opinion offers valuable protections. Even without the reference to core ILO standards – and, as I say, the UK is not guilt-free on these either, despite having ratified all of them – the sorts of review and monitoring mechanisms set out in the Opinion, including civil society (q.v. trade union) involvement, are likely to prove anathema to the ERG, Legatum et al. for whom it will, of course, be more ‘red tape’ bureaucracy and another reason why the UK needs to reach its own deals. They are, indeed, another set of rules by which the UK will have to abide – and not just in the interim if it wants trade with the EU to continue on as frictionless a basis as possible.

As such, these provide not only a valuable contribution to making sure that free trade has ethical, sustainable and people-based dimensions, but are also one more thing which must also be taken into account in defining the precise nature of the UK’s future trade, and people-based, relationship with the EU.

I’m sure that the EESC didn’t have Brexit uppermost in its mind when it was going through the process of developing its Opinion. But it’s good to know that, with the Workers’ Group supported by representatives both of the TUC and the ETUC, it may well be taking care of our own, both in the UK and the rest of the EU, on the crucial issue of trade links as the UK continues its stumbling, shambolic, shameful approach to becoming a third country with respect to the rest of the EU’s member states.

* Has there ever been a more ugly word than bespoke? At once both pleading, smug and conveying a full sense of superior entitlement in just seven ordinary characters…

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