The current wrangling about the Northern Ireland protocol is more than just a minor hitch. This is the result of ministers failing to come clean about the risk that hard borders pose and their failure to deliver on promises of an invisible one.
Under the protocol, trade between Northern Ireland and Britain is subject to customs checks. This arrangement has proved disruptive to the flow of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland. And this is because of the government’s failure to put in place proper border infrastructure.
Jobs and livelihoods are at risk if ministers don’t find a solution. Any attempt to harden the North-South border would put the Good Friday Agreement in peril.
If it wasn’t clear already to the prime minister and his cabinet, it now should be: political honesty, good faith negotiations and attention to detail in trade talks matter. Because while trade agreements can be reopened, amended or added to, ill thought-out deals can have real life consequences for jobs, livelihoods and border communities. We are now seeing that play out before our own eyes across the Irish Sea.
Alarm bells should be ringing. We all hope that that the problems surrounding the protocol can be resolved as soon as possible for businesses and workers affected, but there is a very real concern that the shortcomings of the Brexit deal could yet be further exposed.
At the start of the year, when the deal was announced, the TUC warned of huge gaps in the agreement which needed plugging. We even set out a 10-point plan to fill these gaps. But lots of these issues remain unresolved.
Take the 50,000 customs officers needed to ensure border crossings are as speedy and friction-free as possible. We haven’t seen the mass recruitment campaign we need.
Our Brexit woes could still get a lot worse. But there is a wider point to be made beyond Brexit from this debacle: the issues we are now seeing with the Brexit deal could be the canary in the mine for the UK’s trade policy.
That’s because the lack of a workable plan is not unique to Brexit – it’s been a common thread through the government’s approach to trade talks full stop.
And is it any wonder when the government is intent on only speaking to itself? To date, unions have not been consulted on the text of a single trade agreement.
That could be about to change. Thanks to pressure from the union movement, the government has now committed, in principle, to consulting with unions. But the detail of this new approach is yet be seen.
Meanwhile, ministers have been busy thrashing out trade deals around the world – but too often the deals agreed contain little protection for jobs and rights. Time and time again, these deals have no enforceable labour standards.
Shortcomings in these agreements can have consequences that go beyond economic impact. Colombia is a prime example.
More than 100 human rights defenders, trade unionists and community leaders have been killed in Colombia this year alone. The TUC and Colombian trade unions have called for the UK-Andean deal to be suspended until human rights and workers’ rights are respected.
Let’s be clear – trade deals can be a force for good. They can improve workers' jobs and rights and provide new opportunities. But without the right protections they can lead to a race to the bottom on standards and displace good jobs. And in the worst-case scenario, they can tacitly endorse regimes that abuse human and labour rights.
There is another way to do trade deals – and we are seeing other countries adopt a more progressive and considered approach. In the US, trade unions are obliged by law to be consulted on trade negotiations. This has resulted in tangible improvements for working people.
For example, the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement contains one of the strongest labour rights enforcement chapters ever agreed, with the possibilities for sanctions to be introduced against companies that are abusing labour rights. Our government should look internationally for inspiration. The US isn’t alone in its approach to trade.
Contrary to what some ministers seem to think, trade deals are not primarily a publicity tool. They have real impacts on working people – on their jobs and their livelihoods.
If this government wants to make trade deals work for working people, it must learn the lessons of Brexit.
Instead of thrashing out trade deals with little thought for the consequences, it’s time for ministers to take a more considered, worker-first approach to trade.
Frances O’Grady is general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC)
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