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5 Lessons Trade Unions Can Teach the WTO

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo (L) and Chair of the 10th WTO Ministerial Conference and Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed attend the closing ceremony of 10th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Nairobi, Kenya, on Dec. 19, 2015. The 10th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Nairobi came to an end on Saturday  without a final agreement. (Photo: Xinhua/Pan Siwei)

Trade talks at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) closed in Nairobi on Saturday and the biggest news is what they did not manage to agree.

After 14 years of stalled talks, rich countries continued to refuse to address longstanding injustices in agriculture, such as food stockholding - a practice that provides food to the poorest people by buying from local farmers – which has an enormous impact on marginalised communities across Asia and Africa.

Developing countries united to stop the EU and US getting a green light to negotiate more trade deals on investment, public services and regulation within the WTO. As with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), these sort of deals would have made it harder for countries to support local businesses over foreign corporations and regulate in the public interest. If these had been struck at the WTO this weekend, all countries would be bound by them, not just the few which have already chosen to participate.

Without doubt, efforts will now be redoubled by various governments and business lobbies to push through a whole host of other trade deals that are currently being negotiated, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), TTIP and TISA.

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These deals have many similarities. They are designed to open up new markets for global corporations and create the conditions for them to be as lucrative as possible. Perceived barriers to trade, such as labour standards, food safety regulations and publicly provided services, are to be reduced or removed. Additional legal protection to safeguard corporate profits from the effect of government policy - such as raising the minimum wage or introducing plain packaging on tobacco products - will be introduced. And of course, the negotiations are held in secret and away from parliamentary scrutiny.

Trade unions were well represented among the civil society groups gathered at the trade talks, with the likes of the ITUC, Public Services International, COSATU, the Ghana Congress of Trade Unions and Sentro from the Philippines.

The global unions’ statement of priorities issued ahead of the WTO Nairobi round of talks is here.

Here are five lessons the WTO could learn from the trade union movement:

1. Value your members and give them a vote


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The WTO has 164 member countries and tries to reach a decision by consensus. As on many occasions, consensus was not reached in Nairobi. Yet if each country had a vote, decisions would have been made favourably on a range of agriculture issues of interest to the global south. The consensus system allowed the US and EU to block this and the deal to be struck between the five most powerful countries (EU, US, India, China and Brazil) in private sessions. The WTO negotiations were held for the first time in Africa, without African representatives, or those from least Developed Countries, in the room.

2. Learn from Latin America

Since 2005, Latin American countries have been putting into practice a progressive alternative to the WTO’s neoliberal trade deals, in the form of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America). ALBA is based on the fundamental principles of solidarity, complementary trade, social justice, and respect for national and regional sovereignty. Trade is a tool to fight poverty, rather than the enrichment of powerful countries at the expense of impoverished ones. The Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign has an excellent summary here (pdf).

3. Public services are the most efficient way to deliver quality services to everyone

The history of the WTO is a history of neoliberal attacks on public services. The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) was an early battle to defend public services from liberalisation. Today, we are resisting the Trade In Services Agreement (TISA). This is being negotiated by over 50 countries outside of the WTO. The EU and US were thwarted in their attempts in Nairobi to bring deals like TISA into the WTO and therefore bind all countries to their devastating effects on public services. There is plenty of evidence to show that the private sector is failing to deliver quality public services. The wave of remunicipalisation, where previously privatised water services are brought back under public control, is phenomenal. 100 million people now get their water from a remunicipalised water service, in 235 cities (including Paris and Dar es Salaam), in 37 countries. 

4. Corporations do not need a parallel legal system to protect their profits

The global trade union movement is united in arguing that parallel legal systems, such as Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) in TTIP, give unnecessary protection to business and act against the public interest. Well known cases, including Veolia suing the Egyptian government because raising the minimum wage would reduce its profits, have mobilised millions of people across the EU to call for TTIP negotiations to stop. Nonetheless, the EU’s trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom went to Nairobi to get the green light for a new global deal on investment, modelled on TTIP. Developing countries stood their ground and refused to give the go ahead to a new multilateral deal of this kind.

5. Trade is a means to an end and not an end in itself

Throughout the WTO talks in Nairobi, it was taken for granted that if trade contributes to the growth of an economy (in GDP) it must be a good thing. Trade unions support international trade because it can help to build industries, provide jobs and pay for public services. But these very goals are at risk from some of the deals WTO members, including the EU, want to negotiate on deregulation and the liberalisation of public services. There is plenty of evidence to show that economies can be growing, with rising GDP, but increasing poverty, such as Mozambique. Conversely countries with less than impressive growth, such as Nepal, can halve poverty. There are many international bodies whose role is to increase economic and social justice and tackle poverty and inequality, such as the ILO’s role to strengthen and enforce labour standards, UNCTAD’s to support development and the WHO’s to improve healthcare. But none of these bodies has the clout of the WTO, with its dispute resolution system which can discipline and penalise countries which do not follow the rules. Trade should be a means to the end of social and economic justice and not the end in itself.


Polly Jones

Polly Jones is head of policy and campaigns for Global Justice Now.

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