Politico | 28 January 2021
British and Turkish unions want to suspend fledgling trade deal over labor concerns
By Graham Lanktree
Trade unions in Britain and Turkey have called for the continuity trade deal between the two countries to be suspended less than a month after it was signed.
They’re concerned about Turkey’s treatment of public employees and trade unionists. Last November, Turkish police detained 26 members of a teachers’ union and roughed up unionists at a protest, part of a long-standing crackdown on unions critical of the government.
“We urge the U.K. government to use its leverage in this deal to demand that the Turkish government recognizes and respects the rights of working people and unions,” Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), told POLITICO.
Like the EU deal it’s based on, the agreement contains no enforceable commitments for Turkey to respect labor rights that would help end mass arrests of trade unionists and police violence against peaceful protests by unions.
Suspending the deal would hurt British businesses that benefit from tariff-free goods from Turkey, such as those importing metal, textiles and components for manufacturing, including British automakers. But the principle is an important one to hit home to Turkey, the TUC said.
“You can’t offer more economic access to a country that is egregiously violating human rights,” explained Rosa Crawford, a policy officer at the TUC. Crawford said the unions don’t want the deal scrapped, just suspended to put pressure on Turkey.
“It is important that we do support our economy and good jobs,” she said. “But it shouldn’t be at the cost of endorsing regimes that violate human rights.”
Last year Turkey was ranked among the 10 worst countries for workers, according to the International Trade Union Confederation. It found trade unionists live in “a climate of fear and under the constant threat of retaliation.” Tens of thousands of public sector workers were dismissed after an attempted coup in 2016.
The TUC is speaking out alongside leading Turkish trade unions the DISK and KESK. They want Turkey to respect the International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions if it wants to trade with the U.K. under the deal.
Crawford said negotiations for a new trade deal with Turkey, announced when the continuity deal was sealed in December by the Department for International Trade (DIT), will offer a chance to protect workers’ rights.
The labor groups are calling for enforceable clauses that would allow trade unions to trigger investigations into violations of labor standards, said Crawford, and “sanction or suspension of market access to Turkey” if it was found in violation. “That’s completely missing in the agreement the U.K. has signed,” she said, pointing out that groups like the TUC have called for these provisions since the EU struck the original deal with Turkey back in 1995.
“This trade agreement between Turkey and the UK could be a new platform to discuss international labour rights in Turkey,” said Arzu Çerkezoğlu, president of the DISK trade union who was acquitted last year on criminal charges after facing a prison term for criticizing Turkey’s ruling AKP party in 2016.
A U.K. government spokesperson said the continuity agreement “supports jobs and livelihoods, and is the first step towards a more comprehensive and ambitious" free trade agreement. They added: “Engaging with other countries through trade, rather than isolating them, is a more effective way to bring about change. Human rights are an important issue and that is why we regularly raise human rights concerns with the Turkish government at a senior level.”
Last week Labour’s Shadow Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry raised Turkey’s human rights record along with several other countries during the debate over the Trade Bill and whether it should have provisions to deepen Britain’s protection of human rights.
Since the U.K. has now seized control of its trade policy back from the EU, Crawford said, Britain should “use its independent trade policy to make sure that human rights are a major objective of its trade relations around the world.”