UK making trade deals with countries abusing human rights, says TUC

TUC says UK should use its leverage to ensure countries respect labour and human rights

Last modified on Wed 30 Jun 2021 01.21 EDT

Boris Johnson’s government has been accused of rushing into post-Brexit trade deals with countries where workers’ rights are systematically violated or denied, including five out of the 10 worst offenders worldwide.

Trade union leaders and Labour said the UK government was turning its back on workers around the world and neglecting its commitment to fundamental human and labour rights in the scramble to demonstrate the benefits of Brexit by striking free trade deals outside the EU.

According to research from the TUC, the union umbrella group, and its international partner, the ITUC, more than a third of the non-EU nations with which the UK has secured trade deals are abusing workers’ rights.

Five out of the 10 “worst countries in the world for workers”, according to the ITUC’s annual global rights index have agreed post-Brexit deals over the past two years. As many as 14 of the 24 countries where UK officials are currently negotiating trade deals also have poor track records, including Brazil, Malaysia and India.

It emerged earlier this year that the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, had told staff that Britain intended to trade with countries with poor human rights records.

The TUC said the government needed to suspend some trade deals and use its leverage to ensure countries respect labour and human rights.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said: “A government that readily agrees deals with countries which abuse rights abroad is one that won’t stick up for rights at home either. It’s time for ministers to stop the clandestine approach to trade deals and bring working people to the negotiating table.”

Emily Thornberry, the shadow trade secretary, said ministers had a moral obligation to make clear to other countries that if they wanted preferential trade deals they needed to uphold the rights of workers. Instead, she said:

“Liz Truss and her colleagues have done the opposite, handing out trade deals to dozens of governments with the worst track records in the world for abusing and exploiting their workers, and actively launching negotiations with several more.”

The five countries identified among the worst 10 in the world for workers’ rights by the ITUC include Colombia, where 22 trade unionists were murdered in the past year, and Zimbabwe, where 13 nurses were arrested for requesting adequate allowances for PPE in response to Covid-19. The others are Honduras, where crackdowns on protest have been imposed; Egypt, where 26 steelworkers were prosecuted for striking over non-payment of wages, and Turkey, where 109 workers were subjected to violent treatment and mass detention for protesting against unfair dismissals.

According to the ITUC report, abuses of the right to strike, the right to establish and join a trade union, the right to trade union activities and the right to free speech and assembly are at an eight-year high. Sharan Burrow, the ITUC general secretary, said: “When Covid-19 hit, we learned who the heroes are. Workers everywhere cared for the sick, put food on our tables, and kept the economy moving. But despite all that, workers are under attack like never before.”

A Department for International Trade spokesperson said: “None of the continuity trade agreements we have signed – and which have been scrutinised by parliament – have eroded any domestic standards in relation to workers’ rights.”

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