Working for free trade
A Foreign & Commonwealth Office case study

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Page 5: Role of the FCO

Negotiations leading up to the agreement lasted two years. In negotiations of this type, the FCO is involved not only through the UK representative office to the EU, but often also bilaterally with a number of other governments. For instance:

  • FCO staff working in Embassies in other individual EU member states might discuss the matter with the governments of those countries in order to agree a negotiating position.
  • Staff at the British Embassy in Washington would also take part in talks with the US Government.

Back in the UK, the Home Office is the Government department responsible for data protection issues. During the negotiations it:

  • would consult with technical experts and companies with experience of this type of trade. These are companies which already transmit personal data electronically to overseas recipients, or which plan to do so in the future
  • would then liaise with FCO representatives involved in the negotiations.

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Ethical trade

Many consumers and companies, as well as governments, are concerned about ethical issues in trading with some overseas countries. These issues may involve:

  • poor labour standards, such as where goods imported by British companies are produced in ‘sweatshops’. These often use children working in very poor conditions for very low wages (for example, in the clothing industry)
  • environmental consequences of trading, such as where tropical hardwood forests are suffering from excessive logging
  • goods produced by a country which has been condemned internationally for its behaviour. Countries such as Burma, because of its undemocratic and repressive military regime, fall into this category.


There have been calls for the boycott of goods produced by child labour, in order to dissuade employers in the countries concerned from exploiting children. However, as Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, has said:

…Trade measures only impact on the export sector, which is small in the countries employing most child workers…and the boycott does nothing to address the reasons why children work…We need trade policies which help the poorest countries achieve economic growth...’

There was a case in Bangladesh where, in response to a boycott by Western companies, employers in the clothing industry sacked all their child workers. These children then went into other employment outside the export sector –such as on building sites – where conditions were far worse.

However, British companies, which are large and important customers of overseas suppliers, may well have some influence. If a foreign supplier, anxious to win a lucrative contract, knows that the British customer would favour a firm that provided good working conditions and wages, he may consider it worthwhile to make improvements.

The FCO and its missions overseas are also involved, with the Department for International Development, in a number of projects. These endeavour to curb child labour and provide affordable educational opportunities, with the aim of breaking the cycle of poverty. Once poverty is tackled, child labour is likely to die out.

Despite supporting the principle of free trade, there are some occasions when the British Government aims to stop British companies trading overseas. In some countries, senior members of a repressive regime make huge personal profits from owning or running commercial operations involving, for instance, diamond-mining, logging or oil-drilling. In such cases, the FCO would try to dissuade British companies from doing business with those countries.

Foreign & Commonwealth Office | Working for free trade