Britain’s hopes of post-Brexit US trade deal ‘depend on workers’ rights’

The UK is on the brink of agreeing a deal with the US to remove tariffs on British steel exports, ending months of tensions that had stood in the way of a broader bilateral trade agreement.

Britain’s hopes of a favourable post-Brexit trade deal with the US risk being undermined by the government’s lack of engagement on workers’ rights, trade unions have warned.

As a second round of US-UK talks begins this week, union leaders from both countries said Washington would push for a “worker-centred approach to trade” to help unlock a deal.

Accusing Boris Johnson’s government of failing to grasp the importance of labour rights, the TUC and the AFL-CIO, the biggest union federations in the UK and the US, said a change of tack was urgently required.

It comes as ministers push to build new ties around the world after leaving the EU, with a US trade deal considered a prize target for the government as it attempts to demonstrate benefits of Brexit.

After opening a dialogue on the future of Atlantic trade last month in Baltimore, talks resume this week in Aberdeen and London between the UK trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Katherine Tai, the US trade representative.

At the first round of meetings Trevelyan pledged she would “strengthen the protection of labour rights and the environment” and “tackle forced labour globally”.

However, the US and UK union leaders said the British government had too often hurtled into deals with unsavoury regimes that had no respect for fundamental human and labour rights.

The government had promised a role for union representatives in powerful post-Brexit trade advisory groups, which are consulted on negotiations. However, the TUC warned its nominees for the posts had not yet been confirmed by ministers, meaning unions did not have a place at the table.

In a joint statement, the two groups representing more than 17 million workers, called on the US and UK governments to work together to protect employment standards.

Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, said the UK government had rushed into post-Brexit negotiations with countries that “readily abuse fundamental human and labour rights” such as Colombia and Turkey.

“Trade deals can lift labour standards, promote decent work and reduce inequality around the world. But the UK government has agreed too many deals that leave working people worse off,” she said.

“Enough is enough. It’s time for a truly worker-centred trade approach. That means meaningfully consulting with trade unions and acting on our concerns. Only then is the US government likely to consider closer trade ties with the UK.”

Eric Gottwald, a trade policy specialist at the AFL-CIO, said: “For too long, the voices of working people have been shut out of trade negotiations or discussions. We need the TUC and its unions at the table to shape a fair agreement that lifts wages and standards on both sides of the Atlantic.”

The groups said that under Joe Biden’s administration, the US had increasingly involved protections for workers’ rights in trade negotiations in recent years, including in the latest US-Mexico-Canada agreement.

The leaders said as a result of trade union involvement in the USMCA negotiation, the agreement contains “one of the strongest labour rights enforcement chapters ever agreed”, with possibilities for sanctions to be introduced against companies that are abusing workers’ rights”.

A Department for International Trade spokesperson said: “Trade unions attended the first UK-US trade dialogue in Baltimore last month, and tomorrow the TUC general secretary is speaking in the plenary session of the second dialogue which we’re hosting in Aberdeen.

“The UK has a strong trading relationship with the US, worth over £200bn per year, and through our joint trade dialogues we can deliver a broader and even more ambitious trade agenda.

“We are committed to listening to trade unions and a wide range of voices to ensure our trade policy delivers for the whole of the UK.”