U.S.-Korea Trade Deal Disappoints Labor, Rights Activists
SAN FRANCISCO - Trade unionists on both sides of the Pacific expressed disappointment Monday after the United States and South Korea agreed the biggest U.S. trade pact in 15 years with only minutes to go before a deadline."They sacrificed a good agreement for an agreement in time," Jeff Vogt, a global economics specialist for the trade union federation AFL-CIO, told OneWorld, noting the Bush administration's so-called fast track trade negotiating authority expired shortly after the deal was signed.
"Key issues were thrown overboard," he said.
Vogt said the deal contains no provisions protecting labor rights for workers in either country. He added that the deal is likely to hurt the American auto industry because domestic car and light truck tariffs will be phased out.
"American workers deserve an agreement that is fair for America," Senator Debbie Stabenow (news, bio, voting record) (D-MI) said in a statement. "A truly fair agreement should raise the standard of living, ensure market access to both countries, and uphold competition, and this agreement fails on all counts."
American textile companies are also concerned, as are livestock interests, upset that South Korea's 40-percent tariff on U.S. beef will be phased out slowly -- over 15 years.
Democratic Senator Max Baucus (news, bio, voting record) of the cattle-rich state of Montana, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, threatened to block the deal, which he called an "entirely unacceptable outcome."
The United States Senate must still vote to ratify or reject the agreement. Because the deal was signed before President Bush's fast track trade authority expired Monday, U.S. lawmakers will not have the authority to ask for changes, just to vote it up or down.
Many South Koreans are also opposed to the deal. Thousands of South Korean trade unionists had protested outside negotiating sessions in South Korea, Seattle, Montana, and Washington, DC.
At 3:55 pm on Sunday, 54-year old taxi driver Heo Se-Wook, a union member of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, attempted suicide by self-immolation as an act of resistance against the trade deal.
Korean activists complain the deal eliminates the power of governments to protect their own farms and factories and will enable the largest corporations in the world to dictate national development. They argue that Monday's agreement will have a similar effect to that of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, Mexico, and the United States. NAFTA, they said, exported over 1 million good-paying U.S. manufacturing jobs and forced over 1 million Mexican corn farmers off the land.
Worst of all, Korean activists say, debate over the free trade agreement (FTA) has been suppressed in Seoul, reminding some of 1960s and 70s when right wing generals ruled the country.
"It's a flashback to Korea under dictatorship," said Christine Ahn of Korean Americans for Fair Trade. "That's really freaking people out."
Ahn said that farmers and filmmakers produced a TV-advertisement called "My Home Town" about the expected impacts of the free trade agreement in villages around the country.
"The South Korean television review board refused to air it, saying it was slanted," she said. "They've outlawed any public dissent or protest against the FTA. This is the kind of stuff that, if Americans really supported democracy, we should not be supporting this trade agreement."
Ahn added the free trade agreement could derail South Korea's universal health care system. The deal forbids South Korea from buying generic and lower-priced medicines instead of brand name products produced by the pharmaceutical industry in the United States. That, advocates say, has the potential to drive the cost of health care coverage so high the South Korean government could be forced to cancel it.
It's a provision that could have impacts in the United States as well.
"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," said Maine State Representative Sharon Treat, who heads up the Maine Citizen Trade Advisory Commission. She said the deal could force Maine and 39 other states to pay more for prescription drugs.
"What we really should be doing now as a country in terms of our trade negotiations is focusing on how to reduce the cost of prescription drugs here in the Untied States -- not the other way around: increasing the cost in other countries," she said.
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