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Free Trade Agreements: Workers Rights

Volume 718: debated on Thursday 21 July 2022

9. What steps she is taking to ensure that workers’ rights are maintained in all UK free trade agreements. (901230)

Her Majesty’s Government have been clear that there will be no reduction in British labour protections in signing up to new free trade deals. Our new agreements with Australia and New Zealand demonstrate that. We engage extensively with trade unions to make sure that the interests of workers are fully considered in our policy. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has hosted trade unions, including the TUC, at the recent UK-US trade dialogues.

With the greatest of respect to the Minister, given the contrasts and contradictions in the Government’s approach around things such as the P&O ferry scandal and the recent events with the rail industry, can he tell us what guarantee he can provide to the House that the Government will not sail down the river the rights of working people in this country?

I would point to precedent. The United Kingdom has ratified all eight of the fundamental International Labour Organisation conventions. We continue to encourage our partners to do the same around the world. The agreements with Australia and New Zealand, as I said earlier, reaffirm our commitment to comply with the core international labour obligations that we are party to.

When I visited Washington DC with the British-American Parliamentary Group, I was told in no uncertain terms—I know that the Secretary of State had the same message at the Baltimore talks—that there could be no trade agreement with the United States that did not, first, protect workers’ rights and also reflect the workers’ voice. Will the Minister set out the detailed process by which he will ensure that British workers’ voices will shape the prospective deal with the United States and how those voices will be reflected throughout international discussions? I know that the Secretary of State’s predecessor met the American trade union movement. I think it is really important that British workers’ voices are reflected consistently in deals as well.

I thank the hon. Lady for the question and I can confirm that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met the same bodies. We engage extensively with trade unions to make sure that the interests of workers are fully consulted in our trade policy. We have a trade union advisory group, the TUC is a part of our strategic trade advisory group and, of course, this Conservative side of the House represents the views of hard-working people across the country.

The Government are currently negotiating a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council. The majority of the Gulf countries do not meet basic international standards for workers’ rights, such as the right to unionise. Why on earth, therefore, did the Government drop human rights and the rule of law from their stated negotiation objectives?

We decide on future deals based on the potential benefit to our economy, economic trends and whether we can negotiate a quality agreement supporting the British people and the British national interest. Closer engagement is how we increase our influence around the world and support higher standards, including with countries that might have rights that differ from ours. The United Kingdom will not compromise on our high labour standards, and we will continue to work hard to maintain those standards through our free trade agreement programme.