Fears of a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal are back in the news this week after an investigation by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found evidence of multiple hygiene failures in American meat plants. Unfortunately, a trade deal with the US would likely mean meat from such plants will be widely sold in the UK in the future.
And it’s not only hygiene standards that have people worried. From carcinogens, pesticides, and pollution, to privatisation of public services and workers’ rights, there is a whole spectrum of areas where the US has lower regulatory standards than the UK.
Why is this relevant to a trade deal? Because modern trade deals commonly focus extensively on levelling the playing field between countries in terms of their regulatory frameworks. That’s because similar regulatory standards make it easier to establish ‘frictionless trade’, where goods can be sold and companies can operate easily between markets.
Commonly, when human rights advocates think about trade deals, we think about the potential to improve international standards rather than accept reduced domestic standards. When the EU does a trade deal, for example, its enormous economic clout gives it leverage over smaller countries to make raising their regulatory standards a condition of doing trade.
Unfortunately, the UK doesn’t have the same strength that the EU does. In the example of a UK-US trade deal, the power dynamic is the other way round, making it more likely that the UK will have to accept reduced standards than persuade the US to raise theirs.
It’s pretty easy to see how this might affect things like imported food products, but it might also affect public services and employment rights. The US, might, for example, make it a condition of any trade deal that the UK opens up the NHS to competition and weakens workers’ rights.
The worst part is that, once standards have been lowered, it also allows UK-based companies to exploit the weakened regulatory environment. Lower wages, less holiday, lower environmental protections, and reduced food safety standards could become the new normal across the board. That’s why it’s essential for Parliament to play an active role in scrutinising trade deals – something the government seems to want to avoid.
Andrew Noakes is the Director of LCHR