THE HIDDEN DANGERS
OF FREE TRADE
With Brexit negotiations underway, Thomas Denhof – architect and passive house designer, explains why he
believes we need to make free trade ‘more democratic, fair and sustainable for ourselves and the planet’…
Politicians who support free trade deals are
generally full of praise of the anticipated
lower costs for consumers, as well as
overall economic benefits.
As similar trade deals in recent years have
shown, the public and even MPs are usually
left in the dark about the considerable negative
effects these deals may have on consumers and
businesses alike – the construction industry being
Stories about chlorinated chicken that recently
hit the headlines, in relation to a looming free
trade deal between the UK and the US, are just the
tip of the iceberg.
If a whole chicken costs you less than a pint of
beer in the pub, something seems out of balance.
If the overall income level was to be raised,
consumers could afford sustainably produced
food, rather than relying on cheap produce from
intensive industrial farming using low-cost workers.
The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA) between the US, Canada and Mexico, was
based on rosy promises of economic growth, but
led to opposite results: 20 years on, the workforce
of all three countries has been impoverished. One
million jobs were lost in the US alone, while large
corporations continue to cash in.
The Comprehensive Economic and Trade
Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the EU
was provisionally implemented in 2017. The
European Committee on Employment and Social
Affairs had previously warned that up to 90
million SME jobs, including British construction
materials manufacturers, could be at risk due
to the expected fierce competition from North
What makes modern free trade deals so toxic is
the implementation of the so-called Investment
Court System, a private arbitration court system
that provides corporations with the power to sue
member states in order to get rid of legislation
impeding on their profits, including future ones.
No other legal entities enjoy similar rights. The
number of related corporate lawsuits is increasing
and court rulings can’t be overturned.
With the UK leaving the EU, the balance of
66 BUILDING PRODUCTS | APRIL 2018
power is shifting. The UK on its own will be in
a much weaker position than it would be as a
member of the EU.
The much maligned red tape is mostly there
for a good reason: to protect the air we breathe,
the food we consume and the labour rights
we enjoy. As the country wants to attract new
bilateral trade partners, a lot of these hard-won
achievements, which were implemented by EU,
law might be at stake.
Free trade deals offer a perfect opportunity for
big corporations to dictate to the governments
which regulations to get rid off to promote
business opportunities. This facilitates, for
example, further privatisation of national assets
such as the NHS. The recent Carillion scandal has
illustrated all too well where the privatisation of
public services can lead.
The Trade Bill, which is currently going
through parliament, could enable the government
to bypass the Commons in negotiating and
signing trade deals. As trade deals are negotiated
in complete secrecy, the public will only find
out what they entail once everything is finalised.
When private interests overrule public debate and
established democratic processes, we should start
to worry about the implications – for our personal,
as well as our professional lives. How can we
ensure that we get a good deal for the construction
sector, which so heavily relies on foreign labour
and currently experiences an extreme skills
shortage, if we can’t influence negotiations?
The need for fair trade
Trade has a long history of connecting the world
while enhancing the wellbeing of people of all
countries but we need to formulate the conditions
of trade agreements, to include measures such as:
• Compliance with human rights, labour,
environmental and climate standards;
• Maintenance of the primacy of the
• Focus on trade in goods only, not allowing any
rules for matters beyond trade;
• A mechanism to bring grievances over harm
caused by free trade;
• Exclusion of public services and corporate
• Openness to public scrutiny throughout
negotiations with full parliamentary involvement.
In my opinion, conditions such as these will
help to make free trade more democratic, fair and
sustainable for ourselves and the planet.
The Carillion scandal
has illustrated where the
privatisation of public
services can lead