Finally, details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are going public. A few points and initial thoughts.
The deal would grant multinational corporations the right to challenge laws and regulations in secret tribunals when they are considered trade barriers. Countries can ban tobacco companies from taking part in these tribunals.
The agreement’s language was influenced by multinational companies including pharmaceutical firms, recording studios, agribusinesses, and others. Critics say the deal was forged in secrecy.
The pact calls for improved freedoms and more attention to the needs of indigenous people and overall public health, better access to medicine for people living in the TPP countries and increased protections for drug patents.
Malaysia, whose Prime Minister Najib Razak is accused of stealing nearly $700 million from a development fund, would be required to allow freedom of movement for victims of human trafficking and negate rules restricting labor unions.
With the threat of trade sanctions, TPP countries are required to ban child labor and employment discrimination and give workers the right to form unions.
New markets would open for Vietnamese clothing firms and Malaysian electronics companies.
First, the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts are still horrifying precisely because there is no accountability at all. If nations can’t pass laws based on their own interest without extra-legal courts overruling them, that’s a major defeat for democracy worldwide. That tobacco companies are excluded actually just reinforces this point because all it is doing is claiming one industry is too immoral for these courts. Thus an exception is claimed but who decides in the future if an interest lacks the moral fiber to participate? I don’t per se have a problem with international courts making some level of decision on trade issues. But they have to have some sort of openness and accountability and they have to allow citizens some level of access. Creating international law that undermines the ability of citizens to improve their own nations is a horrible idea.
The greater powers to Big Pharma, agribusiness, and entertainment companies are all deeply problematic, allowing primarily American companies to profit off poor nations by undermining the ability to provide cheap medicines and the extension of America’s ridiculously pro-corporate copyright laws.
I simply don’t believe that the provisions around labor rights will be enforced. We have a long history of trade deals and they never work out for worker rights. Malaysia is required to crack down on its human trafficking, but what is the actual consequence for not doing so? As we saw from the Obama administration’s reclassification of Malaysia’s human rights record in order to allow that key trading partner into the TPP, it’s unlikely, especially as many administrations in the future are likely to care less about international labor rights than Obama. And while banning child labor and the like is great in principle, if workers can’t access this agreement and instead it depends on nations and their powerful corporations, all of whom have interests in keeping this system of child labor, color me extremely skeptical about all of this.
Judy Gearhart of the International Labor Rights Forum has similar thoughts:
In fact, language for an effective labor chapter offered by a coalition of national union federations from the affected countries was largely ignored:
The agreement makes no progress on enforcement, ignoring common-sense proposals like requiring the parties to conduct timely, impartial investigations of allegations of non-compliance and firm deadlines for implementing necessary reforms.
Requests to prohibit the trade of goods made with forced or child labor and to establish mechanisms to seize such goods at the border came out with the TPP merely “discouraging” trade in goods made with these egregious human rights violations.
Requests to include protections for migrant workers, such as regulating labor recruiters or prohibiting confiscation of passports, were wholly ignored, despite well-documented, systemic exploitation of migrant workers in a number of TPP countries.
Proponents of the TPP argue that separate bilateral agreements on labor and human rights for Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei will improve conditions in these countries despite long-standing disregard for the most fundamental human rights, such as freedom of association and elimination of forced labor. This argument is based on the flawed premise, however, that serial labor rights violators will make necessary reforms after they receive the benefits up front.
We have seen this approach fail repeatedly. In the lead up to the CAFTA vote in 2005, the Bush Administration promised that the U.S. government would hold Guatemala, Honduras, and other parties accountable if they failed to improve their dismal records on labor rights enforcement. Ten years later, despite the filing of complaints that clearly show how Guatemala and Honduras continue to fail to enforce their labor laws, worker organizers continue to face threats, abuse, and worse. The Solidarity Center reported last month that more than 70 worker activists have been killed in Guatemala since 2007, and the AFL-CIO reported more than 30 were killed in Honduras since 2009.
I just talked about how these trade agreements have consistently failed Guatemalan workers. There’s not much reason to believe that nations like Vietnam and Malaysia will treat workers any better. As Gearhart states, if you give all the benefits for nations who have no interest in labor rights up front, they are unlikely to then enforce those rights and it’s even more unlikely that the corporations with major investments in these economies are going to accept those nations being thrown out of the agreement or pressing major sanctions upon them.
In short, like NAFTA and CAFTA, it’s highly likely the TPP is not good for the world’s workers. But we keep swallowing the bill of goods supporters of these trade agreements give us about how it will help workers in the U.S. and abroad.