Who Free Trade Agreements Benefit
Currently, the Obama Administration is in the process of negotiating two large scale so-called “Free Trade” Agreements. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) seeks to include the United States and European Union in a free trade zone akin to NAFTA and some of the more recent trade agreements with South Korea and Latin American countries. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) seeks to accomplish much the same among the US, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Provision would be made to add Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea and other Pacific Rim countries later on.
The documents are extremely complex and lengthy. Negotiations are kept largely secret, and include input designed to consolidate financial, economic and political power in the hands of a relatively few large corporations. Local and national regulatory powers of governments that restrict corporate power regarding environmental and consumer safety, as well as worker protections, are severely curtailed.
Environmental laws in some countries could be threatened by the lack of them in others creating incentives for companies to move operations to countries that are cheaper to produce in as a result of the lack of environmental regulations. This sets up a situation where there is a race to the bottom in terms of worker and environmental conditions and protections that encourages profit at the expense of the safety, welfare and well-being of the vast majority of people in all of the countries involved. Laws and practices detrimental to the environment tend to be viewed as externalities not affecting the corporate bottom line when regulations are not in place to prevent or forcefully discourage them. Everyone except the few that are profiting as a result pays a heavy price in terms of their health and safety.
Likewise, lax labor regulation, including areas such as wages, benefits and worker safety, may and do vary widely among the countries involved in the negotiations. Examples abound of large corporations contracting labor to produce items to be sold in developed countries such as the US at wages and under working conditions that most of us here find appalling. Sweatshops in countries such as China and Bangladesh have been in the news often in recent months and years. Major retailers and producers of consumer electronics are just two of the most prevalent abusers in this regard. We must act as responsible and conscientious consumers by pressuring them to do better, but removing what few restrictions exist to their abhorrent business practices is not the preferred solution. We are all responsible for what goes into the products we purchase, including the working and living conditions of those who make them.
Financial regulations such as some of those included in the Dodd-Frank financial reforms may be overridden and/or eliminated by provisions of the treaties relating to the international financial services industry. Some may be subjected to legal action in international courts enforcing the treaties and rendered meaningless, thus defeating the purpose of enacting them in the first place – leaving us vulnerable to a replay of the financial crisis that decimated our economy at the end of the Bush administration. Financial regulations need to be strengthened, not weakened, as illustrated what happened to the world economy during the most recent recession. We have seen that usually those who end up paying for the mistakes made by the large financial corporations are not the same as those who actually make them. They play and we pay.
Extended patent protection for companies, including pharmaceutical firms, could increase the costs of medicines and other items to the detriment of many people in all the countries and to the benefit of the big corporations that hold the exclusive rights to them. This is exactly the opposite of what is thought of by most as “free trade”, in that it establishes a monopoly in production and distribution of essential commodities, giving those who possess them the ability to extract greater profits in providing them by jacking up the prices. There is no competition from other corporations as long as the patent is exclusive.
The main reason that most of the provisions of these treaties are kept secret until a final product is ready for ratification is that if the implications were made widely known and people realized the effect the treaties would have on their lives, many would doubtless be outraged and protest against them. Media helps contribute to the lack of information available because, you guessed it – they are controlled by large corporations as well. You are not seeing many stories concerning these negotiations on mainstream televised or print media, at least not in this country.
The objective is, once negotiations have been concluded, to present a finished product for a fast-track ratification process in the Senate that gives limited debate and no opportunity for changes or amendments to lessen either the negative impacts on the many or the positive benefits for the few. The fate of UN treaties that commonly fail at ratification in the US Senate for various reasons will likely not await these treaties. Previous Free Trade Agreements have survived intact.
I do not know of many fans of these treaties among the vast majority of citizens in the countries covered under them. I know that NAFTA and other such treaties have been accompanied by a great restructuring of our economy away from good paying manufacturing jobs to lower paying service sector jobs. Increasing the ability of big capital to find new, cheaper places to produce what they sell would most likely continue this trend and further increase the vast disparity in income and wealth attained by the vast majority when compared to the affluent few. The main beneficiaries of these treaties are not average consumers, workers or even small business creators that many on the right point out are the job creators in this society, but rather the moguls in charge of the vast multinational corporations who are framing the language that goes into them.
We need to fight to ensure that our elected representatives understand how we will be affected by these far-reaching and complex treaties before they are ratified, and to either have them changed to meet the needs of all people or rejected outright. Corporations already have way too much control over our lives, including how we are governed. Giving them the power to restrict how we may govern ourselves as well as their conduct is not a viable option for us to progress as a society. It is time to reassert our inalienable rights to not be trampled on by unfettered capitalism and to live in a just and humane world.
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