The UK risks lending legitimacy to Brazil’s far-right regime in its pursuit of closer trade ties with the country, trade union chief, Frances O’Grady has told the Independent.
The warning comes as the UK launched a new export strategy Wednesday. The self-styled “ambitious” plan is aimed at encouraging exports to non-EU markets. It follows reports that show significant costs of new red tape for British traders doing business with the bloc, the UK’s single largest export market.
Yet efforts to increase international opportunities for British businesses to compensate for greater trade friction with the EU must not come at the price of ethical standards, said Ms O’Grady, general secretary at the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
“Ministers have rushed into trade deals with some of the worst regimes in the world for working people, like Colombia and Turkey. And now it looks like they will do the same with Brazil.
“It’s vital our government does not legitimise the far-right Bolsonaro with trade talks on the global stage, especially in the year of an election,” she said, adding: “It’s time for ministers to do the right thing and make it clear that trade talks are off the table while Bolsonaro is still in power.”
A new 50-page study from the TUC published Wednesday detailed a host of concerns with Brazil’s government, led by president Jair Bolsonaro. It notes that since the leader took power, four trade unionists have been murdered and strikes have been “violently repressed”.
Meanwhile, British officials confirmed to the Independent that the country is currently listed among nations due to commence trade talks with the UK in 2022. The south American country is the eight largest economy in the world, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.
The TUC’s report includes research on the numbers of murders within vulnerable groups who have clashed with the Bolsonaro regime. It details 29 murders of environmental activists in 2019, 129 murders of transgender people in 2020 between January and September as well as numerous “political” murders” the TUC said.
“The government has published a list of journalists, activists, and social media influencers that it considers hostile to its agenda, and has encouraged its supporters to attack them online,” the report said. It added that trade union leaders face death threats and arbitrary arrest.
According to a British government factsheet Brazil is the UK’s 33rd most important trade partner with bilateral trade worth around £5.6bn in the four quarters up to June 2021.
While COVID-19 may have warped trade data, official figures suggest that the trade surplus the UK had with Brazil has shrunk over the same period. The UK sold £369m more in goods and services to Brazil than it bought from the country compared to a surplus of £948m in the four quarters to the end of June 2020.
The debate over how to align the UK’s commercial interests with environmental and labour standards has become increasingly heated as it moves from securing deals that replicate EU trading terms, towards fresh agreements.
“Trade deals can be a vehicle to improve workers’ rights and protections, while providing new jobs and investment for communities that need it most,” Ms O’Grady said. “But the UK government’s trade policy has not put working people first – whether home or away.”
The TUC study also comes after environmental groups have also criticized and agreement to halt and reverse deforestation in Brazil and other nations at the UN COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this month. Environmental concerns have also been cited by EU member states who have refused to greenlight the EU’s trade deal with the Mercosur trade bloc of South American countries which includes Brazil.
A Government spokesperson said: “We continue to engage with Brazil regularly on trade and we have been clear that more trade will not come at the expense of human rights or the environment.
“The UK works to support human rights issues in the Amazon through a variety of mechanisms, including diplomatic channels and programmes to support communities and indigenous peoples.”
They added: “We have engaged extensively with Brazil on COP26 and our climate commitments, including on deforestation. We have also worked to secure important net zero commitments from 11 Brazilian states, covering over 60% of Brazil’s emissions.”
Environmental campaign group Greenpeace suggested that the lack of a binding timetable for the deforestation measures agreed at COP26 meant it had little value.
Carolina Pasquali, executive director at Greenpeace Brazil, said: “There’s a very good reason [president] Jair Bolsonaro felt comfortable signing on to this new deal. It allows another decade of forest destruction and isn’t binding.”
She added: “Meanwhile the Amazon is already on the brink and can’t survive years more deforestation. Indigenous peoples are calling for 80 per cent of the Amazon to be protected by 2025, and they’re right, that’s what’s needed. The climate and the natural world can’t afford this deal.”