Ministers have been accused of pushing for post-Brexit trade deals with more than a dozen countries around the world that do not guarantee workers’ rights or systematically violate employee protections.
The Trades Union Congress said ministers were in active talks with 13 nations with a worrying track record on employment rights, including Brazil, Burundi, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in order to secure trade deals after leaving the EU.
It comes as tensions mount between unions and the government amid strike action over pay and conditions, with Boris Johnson’s administration accused of deploying culture war tactics to drive a wedge between unionised staff and the rest of society.
Ministers have promised law changes to help reduce strike disruption by allowing employers to hire agency workers to cover staff. Union leaders said the government was showing “total disregard” for workers around the world.
According to a report from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the unions’ global umbrella group, sackings at P&O Ferries where 800 workers were fired with no notice and no consultation was one of the clearest examples of labour abuses around the world.
The TUC said that “a government that readily agrees deals with countries that abuse rights abroad is one that won’t stick up for rights at home either”. It called on ministers to stop attacking fundamental trade union rights and to make good on its promises to improve workplace protections.
The government had promised 18 months ago that union representatives would have a place on powerful post-Brexit trade advisory groups – panels set up to be consulted on the text of trade negotiations – but had so far failed to confirm any appointments. Currently only businesses have seats on the groups.
The TUC said the continued failure to properly consult unions in trade talks was leaving workers around the world worse off, with ministers agreeing deals lacking any enforceable labour standards.
Out of the 67 non-EU countries the government has negotiated trade deals with, as many as five are listed in the 10 “worst countries in the world for workers” according to an index published by the ITUC, including Turkey, Colombia and Egypt.
As many as 10 are placed in the 44 countries with no guarantee of workers’ rights, including Ecuador and Jordan, while eight are among the 38 nations where there is “systematic violation of workers’ rights”, including Australia and Vietnam.
Last week the government kicked off talks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to agree deals with countries covering £33.1bn of trade across the Gulf Cooperation Council, made up of nations including Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar.
However, the TUC said talks with these countries should be suspended because of their record on employment rights, saying to push ahead would risk giving countries a free pass on “abhorrent” labour rights in a rush to agree post-Brexit deals.
Paul Nowak, the deputy general secretary of the TUC, said: “Ministers are in talks with a dozen countries which are some of the worst offenders when it comes to workers’ rights. This will fuel a race to the bottom on rights.
“A government that readily agrees deals with countries that abuse rights abroad is one that won’t stick up for rights at home either. Instead of treating trade agreements as publicity tools, the government should be using its leverage on the global stage to ensure respect for fundamental workers’ rights.”
A Department for International Trade spokesperson said: “We maintain a high level of protection of our labour standards and will not compromise them in any of our trade agreements.
“As well as meeting our obligations under the International Labour Organization, we continue to advocate for the highest labour standards and working conditions globally, including working towards eradicating modern slavery in global supply chains.”