Trans-Pacific Partnership good for workers? The big lie
As the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, passes its final round of negotiations, the White House is going all out to portray the deal as a great gain for working people. US unions don’t agree, and they’ll be fighting the new generation trade deal between twelve countries around the Pacific Ocean all the way through Congress. Why the disagreement?
Well, it doesn’t help that the US Trade Representative (USTR) office put out a briefing on how great the deal was for workers to the media before they gave it to the Labor Advisory Committee where unions are represented. The briefing is under an embargo, so I can’t even link to it here, but has been leaked to trade unions, and it contains some real whoppers.
The biggest lie of all is the suggestion that the TPP guarantees that the rights in the ILO’s core labour conventions will apply to all TPP signatory countries. The suggestion that freedom of association (ie the right to join a trade union of your choice) will apply to Vietnam is ridiculous, as is the suggestion that Malaysia will be free of forced labour or trafficking (although the US government decided to upgrade the country’s status on the issue in July, against the arguments of the AFLCIO, in a clear example of preparing the ground by moving the goalposts.)
What’s even more disgraceful is that the USA itself doesn’t guarantee its own workers the rights set out in the ILO core conventions! The USA has ratified only two of the eight ILO core conventions (half the number China has!), and freedom of association is notable by its absence in the land of the free. I’ve written before about the situation facing the mostly migrant farm laborers in North Carolina, where child labour is rife, and free collective bargaining non-existent. And the use of USA’s alarmingly high prison population as workers for companies making huge profits suggests forced labour is alive and well there too.
There’s more. The USTR briefing maintains that the labor chapter of TPP is as enforceable as everything else in the deal. Of course, we don’t know for sure, because like other new generation trade deals, TPP has been negotiated in secret and the text is not yet available. But it seems unlikely that workers’ rights will be as enforceable as, say foreign investors’ rights, guaranteed by the same sort of old-style Investor State Dispute Settlement as the European Parliament rejected for TTIP over the summer. Workers whose rights are abused under TPP are unlikely to be able to sue governments for billion-dollar settlements in secret tribunals where unions get to pick the arbitrators.
As for the implication that everything is rosy because TPP will guarantee minimum wages and maximum working hours, there’s no suggestion that TPP will guarantee a decent level of minimum wages, or working hours that allow for family life to be possible. Just a requirement to put some sort of limit on them (presumably above zero for the wage and below 24 hours a day for working time).
Of course, some people will be persuaded by the USTR propaganda offensive (people who desperately want to be convinced, for example), but first signs are that unions in the USA and around the Pacific will not be taken in. Their campaigns now will focus on exposing the big lies underpinning TPP, and campaigning to get elected representatives to reject the deal.
As we head towards similar debates over the EU deals with Canada (CETA, which is already done but not voted through) and the USA (TTIP), we’ll be cheering on the US and other trade unions, and watching to see what works for them so we can copy their successes.