Anti-TTIP protesters take to the streets. Photo: Getty Images
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People's concerns over TTIP must be heard

Public anxiety over the Trans-Atlantic Trade Partnership (TTIP) must be listened to, and addressed. 

An important vote was passed in the trade committee (INTA) of the European Parliament today, which will impact upon the future of a trade deal currently under negotiation between the European Union and the United States. If passed, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, will be the biggest agreement of its kind, shaping the rules governing a quarter of all global trade. It is also the issue about which I have received an unprecedented number of emails from constituents and campaign groups. Emails expressing concern that TTIP will lead to reduced transparency and accountability, pressures on wages and social dumping, a weakening of health and safety standards and a hampering of our efforts to tackle climate change.

I want to ensure that we get the best deal for European citizens. A positive outcome on TTIP could present a unique opportunity to regulate globalisation and to promote the high standards on which the European Union (EU) prides itself. This can only be achieved if the people it will affect are given the chance to have their say.

As Member of the European Parliament (MEP), member of the European trade committee and the European Labour Party's spokesperson on TTIP, it is my duty to ensure that these voices are heard in Brussels and Strasbourg, and since being elected in May last year I have made this a priority. I have met with hundreds of campaigners, attended dozens of events and written at length on the state of play in the Parliament. I have listened to the public's concerns and tried to explain in the clearest terms possible the complicated process of negotiations, so that UK citizens know what is and isn't at stake.

It is important to note that it's the European Commission, not the European Parliament, which leads negotiations on trade deals in the EU. In fact, MEPs have no role in the negotiating process at all. What we do have is the power to veto any trade deal that does not satisfy our demands or the demands of our constituents. This is a blunt tool - MEPs can only say yes or no - however the threat of a negative vote means that we can have an influence on negotiations, however indirect. Knowing that MEPs will have the final say, it would be very unwise for the Commission not to take into account the Parliament's position on TTIP.

As such, the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, together with other progressive political groups, have wasted no time in making clear what we are willing to accept in a final trade deal, and what we would reject. We have consistently pushed for the current European Parliament to formally adopt a position on TTIP, to set out in advance our conditions for supporting any deal with the US.

But in order to get this resolution, we need the numbers. Since we don't command a majority on our own, or even together with the greens and the radical left, this means agreeing common demands with the conservatives and / or liberals.

In this context, this week was a brilliant first step forward. A resolution adopted in the trade committee set out our position on a wide array of issues. It is, however, just a first step: the texts adopted in committee (by 41 MEPs) will then be voted by the plenary of the European Parliament, which will confirm the position on TTIP of all 751 MEPs. This crucial second vote will take place on 10th June 2015.

One such position contained in this resolution calls for an assurance that all public services - including the NHS, water, social services, social security and education - are exempt from the scope of an EU-US trade deal. Importantly, we have also demanded that national and local authorities retain the full right re-nationalise any public services currently under private control. In the context of the rapid privatisation of the NHS currently being overseen by the Conservatives, the inclusion of this clause will be highly significant for any future UK government wishing to reverse such a trend.

Anyone that has heard David Cameron call our concerns for the NHS "nonsense" last November will appreciate the significance of this victory.

This resolution is largely based on recommendations we've received from public services users, providers and employees. It was already the position of the Labour Party and European Socialists. It is now the position of the trade committee, and hopefully it will become the position of the whole European Parliament on 10 June.

We have also managed to secure strong provisions to defend binding labour safeguards in a future agreement, so as to prevent social dumping. The outcome on standards is significant, too. The text we agreed on the infamous "regulatory cooperation", which some multinationals and Tory MEPs view as a way to bypass Parliament in order to slash our standards, is a clear rejection of undemocratic power-grabbing of any kind. 

Finally, the outcome reached in the trade committee on private tribunals - known as Investor State Dispute Settlement or ISDS - is an important victory, even if it is not ideal. I had tabled an unambiguous amendment against ISDS, for which I had gathered the support of 66 Socialist MEPs.

My position on ISDS is clear. While we may include investment protection rules in trade deals, I do not believe that these rules should be enforced through special private tribunals in which multinationals can secretly sue governments for implementing policies that threaten their current and future profit margins. I have defended the use of national courts in TTIP, and I'm sympathetic to the idea of creating an international tribunal in the medium- or long-run so that all countries have access to the same system. However any outcome that threatens elected policymakers from implementing laws as they see fit is nothing short of unacceptable, and I will vote against any such measure.

The position adopted this week is a compromise on my amendment, though it nonetheless favours the use of public courts instead of any investor-state dispute settlement mechanism. To me this means no ISDS in TTIP.

This is not the end of our fight. On 10 June, the text we adopted this week in committee will be put to the vote in a plenary session of the European Parliament. This will give us the opportunity to table amendments again, and I will continue to press for a strong position from the Parliament that includes an explicit rejection of ISDS. Labour MEPs will of course support such a move, but in order to win this vote we will need the support of Tory, UKIP and Lib-Dem Members, too. This week's vote is proof that when the people make enough noise, MEPs with the power to influence positive change listen. Another big push to convince those politicians not already on side - via social media, via letters and emails and via collective public action - could make all the difference. As we approach this important next hurdle, I urge you to all to make your voices heard loud and clear.

 

Jude Kirton-Darling is Labour MEP for the North East of England

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.