Bali WTO Ministerial needs to get real: free trade has winners and losers
This week trade ministers from around the world, including Britain’s Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint, will gather in Bali, Indonesia for a doomed World Trade Organisation (WTO) jamboree. After the collapse of talks involving officials in Geneva last month, Ministers are being asked to do the impossible and salvage something (they will almost certainly claim they have, whatever actually happens!)
According to global unions, they should be concentrating on ensuring that world trade promotes, rather than undermines, decent work. That’s the message that TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has spelled out in an urgent letter to Vince Cable, who has overall oversight of trade in the Government.
The trade world is dominated at the moment by regional and bilateral trade deals rather than the multilateral WTO round. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the USA are the biggest, but there are some suggestions of EU-China trade talks (starting with an initial bilateral investment treaty, or BIT), the EU-India discussions are stalled but not forgotten, and the Canada-EU trade deal (CETA) has been agreed politically with ‘only’ the detail to be finalised.
Opposition continues to grow to the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) process included in CETA, for example, with the TUC joining over a hundred civil society organisations to oppose ISDS being part of the eventual ‘detail’.
All of these initiatives are touted as being ‘get out of recession free’ trade deals, with politicians and think tanks outdoing themselves with outrageous claims about how much they will add to GDP, family incomes, and human happiness (well, I’m only exaggerating a bit.) But while trade deals can indeed create jobs, reduce costs and stimulate growth, unions are counselling caution. Not everyone benefits from trade agreements, as global public services union leader Rosa Pavanelli points out:
“There are winners and losers in free trade. Even where trade facilitates rises in national wealth, this wealth is not evenly distributed. Large companies do well, consumers rich enough to afford foreign goods do well, but workers in affected industries lose their jobs, local goods exposed to export markets become unaffordable to the poor and small producers go bankrupt.
“In this environment, the pressure to lower wages to maintain competitiveness has become a dogma. Countries respond by undermining workers’ rights, often breaching core labour standards and fundamental human rights.”
That’s why the TUC has been urging that workers’ rights should be reinforced in the EU-India free trade deal, TTIP and other arrangements, and it underlies our concern about ISDS processes. Then there is food security, aid for trade, data protection and so on.
Lord Green plans to retire from Government after the Bali conference, and has told a House of Lords enquiry that he’s off on holiday. If he can actually deliver a good trade deal, he’ll have earned his rest!