Trade justice must recover steam

Posted on April 18, 2019
Pixabay Banana 342677 960 720

If you grew up in a church like the one I did, you might remember a small stall at the back of church, which probably stood between a shelf of devotional books and a table of weak squash. This stall was an exception to my parents’ rule against shopping on Sundays, probably because (a) it was in a church, and (b) the products sold were explicitly ethical: Fairtrade spices, Cafédirect coffee, and — at the right time of year — Traidcraft Easter eggs.

Fairtrade stalls, less common in churches today, are testament to the Church’s longstanding involvement with “trade justice”. For Christians, trade justice is about reimagining what our global system of exchange would look like if the people on which the system depends — workers, farmers, sellers — were seen as God sees them: not as cogs in the machinery of production, but individuals made in his image. Trade justice goes beyond charitable provision of aid, but looks at the design of the whole system: from how workers are paid to how governments regulate, and to how the World Trade Organization designs its tariff rules.

Trade justice affects all of us. As Western consumers, we benefit from a system of exchange which is rigged in favour of developed countries. Equally, as citizens, we are increasingly vulnerable to the power that large companies wield over global trading rules, which threaten to undermine hard-won protections, including environmental standards and social rights.

The Church’s commitment to trade justice can be traced back to the days of Wilberforce and the abolitionists, who led consumer campaigns against slave-made sugar. More recently, at the turn of the millennium, faithful congregations marched on Parliament to demand the cancellation of Third World debt, and church leaders were at the forefront of the “Make Poverty History” campaign, which, quite remarkably, united disparate voices across civil society.

In recent years, however, the trade-justice debate has changed somewhat, and lost some of its millennial steam. A combination of the financial crisis, followed not long after by the Brexit, Trump, and other populist movements, have served as an understandable distraction.

Furthermore, until Brexit, trade policy remains an EU competence, which means that the UK Parliament has no control over it. In 2008, European trade campaigning organised protests against TTIP, a giant EU-US trade deal (Comment, 18 November 2016). The EU’s ambition was to include far-reaching regulatory and investor-protection provisions in trade deals, which campaigners feared would primarily benefit multinational corporations.

The potential trade-justice impacts of leaving the EU are arguably even greater than they were within it. If Brexit does go ahead, the UK will adopt an independent trade policy for the first time in 40 years, which means that the time is ripe for the Church to rediscover its resolve to tackle global injustice.

There are two particular opportunities for trade-justice campaigners in 2019. The first is a campaign led by a broad coalition of civil-society organisations against Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). ISDS clauses, which are often included in the UK’s trade deals, allow multinational investors to sue national governments for any measures which damage their profits. Historical cases include a French multinational suing the government of Egypt for raising its minimum wage, and an American tobacco giant suing Australia for attempting to introduce plain cigarette packaging.

ISDS particularly affects developing countries that lack decent regulatory frameworks. As countries develop, they may wish to introduce regulations such as air-pollution controls, carbon taxes, and minimum wages. Any of these could be subject to an ISDS challenge, the threat of which discourages developing governments from regulating, even when new policies are democratically supported and in the public interest. Brexit means that the UK is rethinking its entire approach to trade, and the campaign hopes to put pressure on the Government to change its policy on ISDS.

The second opportunity concerns democratic scrutiny of the UK’s trade deals. The current process for agreeing trade deals dates back to an archaic convention, the Ponsonby Rule, designed in the 1920s, which means that MPs do not have a guaranteed vote on international treaties. This is the approach to treaty ratification which will be adopted after Brexit, even for deals such as one with the United States, which could include ISDS and reduce our food standards. Before the UK begins negotiating post-Brexit trade agreements, it is essential that Parliament “takes back control” of scrutinising trade deals in the public interest.

The Church should take up these opportunities. From Fairtrade stalls in the back of church to bishops in the House of Lords, the Church is well-placed to campaign and help write the legislation that will set out how the nation trades after Brexit — assuming that Brexit goes ahead. Furthermore, trade justice offers an imaginative means for the Church to engage with the impact of Brexit without aligning itself to a particular political faction.

Regardless of one’s view of the political issues of our day, the vision of a democratic and fair trading system is surely something that we can unite behind.

By David Lawrence

This piece first appeared in the Church Times. It is available at