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LONDON — Britain wants to get rich through new trade deals — but that risks impoverishing already vulnerable nations.
A British deal with India, negotiations for which begin this week, could worsen conditions in garment sweatshops in neighboring South Asians, say workers’ rights campaigners and a major industry group.
They are pushing for social and environmental protections in any deal with India to avoid a race to the bottom.
Their fears center on the special arrangements London already has with developing countries, known as the Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP). This offers countries low or zero tariffs to help them expand their business and alleviate domestic deprivation.
Pakistan, a major garment exporter, is categorized as an “enhanced framework” country, designating it as a low- or middle-income country. To be eligible for zero customs duties, it must adhere to certain rules on human and labor rights.
Bangladesh, another apparel powerhouse, is categorized as a ‘least developed country’, meaning it automatically gets zero tariffs and quotas on all imports into Britain, except except for weapons. Bangladesh should soon reach the same class as Pakistan.
But campaigners fear that if India, an economic giant compared to its smaller South Asian countries, strikes a deal with the UK that also gets it zero tariffs on finished garments, it could dominate the market at the expense of its developing neighbors – putting livelihoods and rights at risk.
The concerns found an unexpected champion: the group of companies representing the UK fashion industry. Members seeking the ‘cheapest needle’ in the world may disagree, but the UK Fashion and Textile Association says it must fight for the good of the whole of society. clothing ecosystem.
“We see there is room to bring in more goods,” said Paul Alger, director of international affairs at the UKFT. “But we are not asking for zero tariffs on finished products, because that would undermine our position vis-à-vis certain developing countries.”
To avoid such losses, the UKFT wants tariffs on finished garments to remain above zero, so that India does not gain a competitive advantage over countries that need the business even more. But India will no doubt pressure Britain to reduce tariffs to zero, in which case the industry is asking India to meet at least the same standards as its developing neighbours.
“India is now a developed country rather than a developing country,” Alger said. “If the government finds that it has to accept zero tariffs as part of a trade deal, we would very much like to see social and environmental protections in the deal that reflect obligations similar to those we make of Pakistan and from Bangladesh and others. under GSP agreements.
The Commerce Department said the ministers are committed to tackling the problem of forced labor in global supply chains and will encourage other countries to uphold international labor standards.
A UK government spokesman said: “The government is clear that more trade will not come at the expense of human rights. The UK will continue to show global leadership by encouraging all states to uphold international human rights obligations and hold those who violate human rights to account. Consistent with our international obligations, the government will continue to ensure a high level of labor standards protection in new trade agreements.
Fiona Gooch, senior policy adviser at campaign group Traidcraft Exchange, said the UK has “large retailers and well-resourced manufacturing companies scouring the world for the cheapest production outlets . You also have governments courting these companies.
The result is that retailers will move their manufacturing to India if it means they can sell products at a lower price, regardless of the implications for developing countries. This increased competition means downward pressure on prices, and the pinch of money often affects workers’ terms and conditions – whether on pay, benefits or health and safety savings.
It is too real a fear for those who work in sweatshops in the poorest countries. “If buyers increase their purchases from India, garment workers in the country risk losing their lives and losing their livelihoods,” said Towhidur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Apparel Workers Federation, a trade union.
He noted that up to 80 percent of factory workers in Bangladesh are women, most of whom come from the villages and receive no decent wages and few union rights. Thus, a loss of trade could be devastating for rural communities.
“If buyers turn to India, the current pace of the garment industry will slow down, which in turn will contribute to the creation of a large number of unemployed,” he warned. “The empowerment of female workers will be disrupted and various issues including social unrest may arise.”
Activists are also calling on the government to pass laws ensuring that producers have an obligation to prevent human rights abuses in their production lines and set up a fashion watchdog to enforce compliance. fair shopping.
Others argue the UK needs to write enforceable provisions into a trade deal with India on protecting human and labor rights in the region. But they have little hope that Britain will push for commitments they deemed necessary.
“Unless the UK does something radically different from its usual approach to trade, it will not put anything binding on human rights or labor rights,” Ruth Bergan said. of the Trade Justice Movement campaign group. “So India, a huge competitor on the doorstep of Pakistan and Bangladesh, will have better access to the UK market without the same constraints.”
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