David Martin MEP

Labour Member of the European Parliament and one of the six MEPs representing Scotland in Brussels and Strasbourg

Trade deals must be part of the EU's strategy to improve workers' rights

Workers_day.jpgApril 28 was International Workers' Memorial Day, recognising all those who went to work one morning and never came back.

On the day itself, Scotland was given a tragic reminder of its ongoing significance as a worker lost his life whilst constructing the new Forth crossing near Edinburgh.

In the EU workers are still risking their lives due to insufficient legal protection and enforcement of existing rules. In 2012 - the last time these statistics were collected - 3,515 people died in reported work accidents in the EU. According to Unite, in the UK two workers die per week.

This is why I wholeheartedly support European Trade Union Federation (ETUC)'s latest campaign to improve health and safety at the workplace. It calls on the European Union to introduce new legislation to protect workers, specifically regarding carcinogenic nanoparticles, social risks such as stress and harassment, as well as neck, back and elbow pain.

However, today is also an important opportunity to remember that the rights workers take for granted in the EU are not shared by billions of people across the globe. The EU could and should do more to help them too using trade policy as a tool.

The Rana Plaza tragedy

This week also contains another significant anniversary. Three years ago almost to the day over one thousand workers in the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh lost their lives in the greatest workplace disaster ever.

On 24 April 2013 this unsafe eight storey building collapsed after cracks discovered in the walls in the preceding days had been ignored. 1,130 deaths, 2,500 injuries, and countless lives ruined by these tragic losses. From a European perspective, the sense of guilt is huge when you consider that clothes for some of our most well-known brands like Primark, Monsoon and Accessorize were being made in these life-threatening conditions.

Even before the accident, the workers were being paid on average around £30 a month - tantamount to slave labour.

So what can we do about it?

On a personal level, it is clear: ask yourself where your clothes have come from and if they were ethically produced. However, this information isn't always readily available.

After the tragedy at Rana Plaza the EU launched the Bangladesh Sustainability Compact, promising short and long term commitments on labour rights (including trade union rights), occupational health and safety, as well as responsible business practices. Although a step in the right direction, questions remain over its effectiveness.

Going forward, it is clear that trade agreements with developing countries can also play a role in setting global standards for workers' rights. Access to our huge single market is an excellent carrot for developing countries to reform their labour laws. But we must also not be afraid to use the stick where necessary.

This is why my group in the European Parliament are pushing for strong and enforceable workers' rights provisions in trade deals, backed up by sanctions if not adhered to.
The recently agreed deal with Vietnam shows the positive direction that the European Commission is taking in this regard, with explicit commitments from the Vietnamese government to ratify International Labour Organisation conventions and respect labour laws.

However, problems remain around enforceability. Whilst ad-hoc measures do exist, the possibility of imposing sanctions is still not there. This remains a priority for our group in the TTIP negotiations, so that with our American partners we can set strong and progressive labour rules for global trade.

As well as continuing to strive for workers' safety in the EU, we must harness the potential of trade deals to improve workers' rights across the globe.

We owe it to the many who have tragically died at work to create a better and safer world for workers in the future.

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