Labor Day Showdown: Can Advocates Stop 'NAFTA of the Pacific'?

This Labor Day, the Pacific Rim will wash into the Midwest's flagship city, and activists will confront the tides of global commerce with a demand for global economic justice.

This Labor Day, the Pacific Rim will wash into the Midwest's flagship city, and activists will confront the tides of global commerce with a demand for global economic justice.

At trade talks in Chicago, the Obama administration will work with other officials to develop a trade agreement that will incorporate Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Peru. Labor, environmental and human rights groups will gather in the city to warn that the structure, and guiding ideology, of the emerging trade deal could expand a model of free-marketeering that has displaced masses of workers across the globe and granted multinationals unprecedented powers to flout national and international laws.

The provisions of the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement or Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are still under wraps. But the general outline seems to mimic the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and similar pacts that have brought political and economic turmoil to rich and poor countries alike. The new negotiations are also taking place amid political friction over pending trade deals with South Korea and Colombia, which have run into opposition over concerns about labor abuses abroad and offshoring of U.S. jobs. Yet the White House continues to push free trade as a path toward the country's economic revitalization.

So on Monday, activists with Stand Up! Chicago and other groups hope to get ahead of political deal-making by demanding that any new trade deal give greater priority to environmental, labor, and health concerns. The ongoing trade talks offer a tiny opening for advocates to put forward ideas for making trade less hostile to ordinary people. In a way, they're taking the Obama administration on its own word, because the TPP has been billed as a "21st century" trade pact that will presumably improve on previous trade agreements.

Of course, that could just be the tepidly liberal spin on a deal that is shaping up to be the "NAFTA of the Pacific," as activists call it: a pact that coddles corporate interests like sweatshop manufacturers, pharmaceutical makers, and agribusinesses seeking to eliminate any barriers to profit.

Manuel Perez-Rocha, an analyst with the D.C.-based think tank Institute for Policy Studies, says that free trade deals tend to use "investment" and "growth" as a pretext for ruthless exploitation. The agreements "push wages lower and dislocate production with the ensuing loss of jobs," says Perez-Rocha, adding that "the prospects for the TPP are very bleak and workers everywhere must resist it."

Some Pacific Trade Partners seem to have no qualms about tying free markets with oppressive political systems. The Vietnamese government, for instance, has complemented U.S.-friendly development policies with measures to quash collective bargaining and independent labor organizing, along with general suppression of political dissent and organizing through Internet censorship, according to research by the International Trade Union Confederation.

The tiny, oil-rich regime of Brunei has faced wide criticism for failing to adhere to international labor rights conventions on unionization and non-discrimination, and for enabling the systematic abuse of foreign laborers, who fill many of Brunei's lowest-paid low-skill jobs, like domestic work.

The very process of the trade negotiations, though, is structured to prevent basic issues, ranging from union rights to climate change, from even coming up for discussion. The Citizens Trade Campaign explains in its briefing on the TPP:

Executives from hundreds of corporations that have been named as official trade advisors have access to the texts and talks. Members of Congress, journalists and the people whose lives will be most affected, however, have no ability to see what our negotiators are bargaining for--and bargaining away--until a deal is done and it is effectively too late for changes.

What has so far come to public light from the negotiations doesn't look promising. A recently leaked document on prospective intellectual-property provisions of the TPP suggested, to the outrage of health advocates, that the agreement could tighten patent restrictions and constrain access to critical HIV/AIDS medications in the Pacific region.

Not surprisingly, this general disregard for civil society is reflected in elaborate trade protocols that allow companies to circumvent regulation. Public Citizen has documented many "investor-state" arbitration suits filed under NAFTA and younger cousin the Central America FTA. In one such case, a foreign investor has tried to block action by the Peruvian government over the company's alleged failure to carry out a clean-up of a heavily polluted metal smelter site in La Oroya. An $800 million investor-state claim argued the government's action violated the company's right to "fair and equitable treatment" under the Peru Trade Promotion Agreement.

And what about the administration's claims that more free trade means more jobs for a stagnant economy? Those promises did not bear out in the years following NAFTA's implementation, which labor analysts associate with major job losses in key manufacturing sectors (not to mention economic havoc and agricultural devastation in Mexico, which in turn fueled the immigration crisis north of the border).

Even from a business standpoint, activists note that, since the U.S. already does brisk business in the Pacific Rim, the TPP isn't likely to bring a major boost to exports or multinational investment. Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of Citizens Trade Campaign, speculated that the Pacific free trade plans aim primarily to set a precedent for corporate impunity:

Clearly, Wall Street wants more financial deregulation and sees this agreement as a mechanism to get it. Beyond that though is the obvious interest in big corporations being able to shift jobs around the globe to wherever labor is the most exploited and environmental regulations are the weakest. A free trade agreement with Vietnam and Malaysia and Brunei would make it easier for corporations to do so, driving down wages and benefits for most working people, not only in Chicago or the United States, but everywhere. It's a cycle that has to stop.

But there's still time at least to try to turn the Pacific trade dialogue away from the status quo and toward a concept of globalization that actually strengthens protections for economic sovereignty, sustainability and decent work. Some fair-trade groups have campaigned for the TRADE Act, which would set a baseline for labor, human rights, and regulatory protections in future trade deals. Public Citizen, the Institute for Policy Studies and other advocacy groups have published a model framework for protecting the public interest in transnational investment and commerce. At the core is a broad public protection exemption written into trade deals that would keep corporations from taking legal action against a nation's safeguards for the environment, labor, or health and safety in the name of "free trade." By shielding essential regulations from arbitrary corporate attacks, the coalition argues, the measure would "[shift] the burden of proof for defending their public interest laws away from governments."

But currently, that burden of defending the public interest falls on the shoulders of grassroots groups, while officials rush to crack open free markets in the Global South. Perhaps the most activists can do this Labor Day is rally in Chicago's streets as negotiators meet in virtual secrecy to pen what may be the economic fate of millions across three continents. If the officials inside refuse to listen, then maybe the people outside will.

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