Harriet Harman

Labour Member of Parliament for Camberwell & Peckham

Brexit means government must safeguard workers’ rights that trade unions fought for


Theresa May has said that Brexit brings new opportunities for Britain and that we can lead the world in Free Trade. The warnings from the Bank of England that our economic growth will be half what we would have had if we'd stayed in the EU are very worrying.  And The Prime Minister's visit to China and statements from Japan, and Australia show that setting out on our own to negotiate trade deals is going to be no easy task.  One of the important aspects of all EU trade agreements with non-EU countries is that the EU insists on the inclusion of clauses which require the government to ensure that trade is Fair as well as Free. That means that those we have a trade agreement with commit to preventing child labour, forced labour, discrimination and to ensure that workers are able to join a trade union and that their union is free to negotiate.

Over the years, Unions in this country have been key to ending exploitive and dangerous work practices. And Sports Direct shows that they still are.  But they are even more important in the developing world where child labour and forced labour sees people working in deadly, dangerous factories.  After Brexit, we will no longer be part of EU trade deals with non-EU countries or part of the human rights protections in those agreements.  But when our ministers and civil servants start talks and then negotiations for our post Brexit UK trade deals, we must put on the table at the outset that we will insist on clauses that are, at the very least, no weaker than the clauses in the EU trade deals.  Brexit must not be the moment when the UK becomes the weak link in the global attempt to protect the human rights of workers overseas. 

There are 50 global companies who, between them, employ 160 million of the world’s poorest people.  These companies are giants compared to the countries they are working in.  People in those countries need us to be on their side to be part of improving their safety and rights at work. And crucial to this is trade unions. They are in the factories 24/7.  Something which auditing and monitoring organisations can never be. They are the "canary in the mine" warning of unsafe and unfair conditions. They ensure that workers have someone independent they can report to.  Theresa May stood on the steps of Downing Street saying she wanted to see equality.  We need it here in this country.  And we need global equality too. Brexit must be the moment we set higher standards and certainly not lower them for struggling people in the developing world.

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