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Free trade costly



Published: Thu, January 24, 2013 @ 12:00 a.m.

By William A. COLLINS

OtherWords

The Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement, being negotiated in secret even as we speak, has a lot to say about worker rights and environmental protections. This pact, which is shaping up between the United States and 10 other nations, comes out squarely against them.

Like most other global trade deals, the true purpose of this so-called “partnership” is to “free” corporations from government rules, particularly those aimed at protecting us all from devastating pollution, barbaric working conditions, consumer fraud, and other forms of corporate abuse.

No wonder these negotiations are secret.

Sweat shops

These deals are part of why modern global trade continues to rely on sweatshop-produced goods. Where would our proud nation be today without the world’s sweatshops churning out the cheap goods that flood our homes? If those goods had to be produced under humane work rules and safety regulations, we couldn’t afford them all. We’d have to get by with less stuff. Wait, wouldn’t that be better for the environment, job creation and the ever-daunting challenge of keeping all our possessions organized?

We’ve relied on cheap foreign goods for ages. But in recent decades, with the World Trade Organization, NAFTA, and other similar pacts, the benefits of this arrangement for most of us are shrinking. Governments understandably resist getting trapped between politically generous but grasping corporations on the one hand, and a cheated, abused, under-employed public on the other. Thus, they’ve shrewdly formulated international trade organizations to protect themselves from having to take the heat.

Take mining. Our Congress and Environmental Protection Agency may pass strict anti-pollution rules for American mines, but if a foreign owner buys up the pit and ignores the laws, he or she can often get away with it.

Such pillagers aren’t subject to prosecution in U.S. courts, but rather to arbitration before WTO tribunals. There, they can successfully claim that stern anti-pollution laws unfairly deprive them of a reasonable profit under international trade rules. As a result, our government can only publicly wring its hands, while simultaneously winking at the smirking polluters.

Tuna fish

This pernicious system even works for tuna fish. The WTO has, for example, ordered Washington to halt the designation of “dolphin safe” on our cans. One of its tribunals found such labels is unfair to Mexican fishermen who lack the special nets and the desire to avoid drowning dolphins.

And if the powerful United States loses cases like this, you can imagine how it goes in El Salvador, Paraguay, Zimbabwe, and the Philippines. Greedy politicians in those places long ago sold out their constituents to approve these trade treaties.

The secrecy surrounding negotiations over the new Trans-Pacific Partnership means that not even members of Congress get to see the drafts of the undemocratic deal brewing between Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, Mexico, Canada, and our own government.

But as always, there are leaks. One instructive disclosure obtained by Public Citizen informs us that of the agreement’s 26 chapters, only two deal with trade. The other 24 codify various corporate rights and protections.

William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. He wrote this for OtherWords, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.


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