Canada, workers and the fight for trade justice | Graham Cox

The federal government has had three different occasions over the previous year to boast about the end of the negotiations for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. In all three instances the government has declared their unwavering support for free-trade and blasted anyone who has dared criticize the undemocratic nature of free-trade agreements as out-of-touch anti-trade ideologues.

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The self-congratulatory nature of the Conservative’s announcements hide the fact that the supposed benefits of “free” trade are absent for the average worker in Canada.

For workers in Canada, the economic history of globalization and the expansion of free trade agreements is one of transition from high-value production and quality unionized jobs to resource extraction and export and more precarious work. It has also meant reduced access and privatization to public services. This transition has been met with skepticism from working people as they see our economy become more precarious, more unequal and with fewer well-paying jobs.

However, the government continues to sign trade and investment agreements at an increasing and alarming rate, with little care for their implications.


More and more trade agreements

For six years, Canadian trade justice activists have focused on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) being negotiated between Canada and the EU. CETA, like the North-American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), is an agreement that reduces democratic control over local economies.

CETA will limit the ability of governments pass regulations, require local labour or products be used in publicly funded projects, undermines local food sourcing. It will increase drug costs by extending monopoly ownership of drug patents and it has a process where companies can challenge governments who pass laws that might interfere with future profits through an unaccountable arbitration system stacked in their favour.

The arbitration process, called investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), has ignited a firestorm of criticism from Europeans who see it for what it is: giving corporations the power to undo democratic laws they do not like. Popular opposition has grown so much that the German and French governments have openly criticized the validity of having ISDS in CETA and the EU sister agreement with the US (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – TTIP).

CETA is one of several strategies the Conservatives are using to permanently shrink government by reducing federal and provincial capacity to regulate economic activities in Canada and abroad. However, since CETA negotiations began in May 2009, Canada initiated and/or signed several other bilateral and regional preferential trade agreements. Important examples include the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, led by the United States; the Canada-South Korea FTA; and NAFTA-plus agreements with several Latin American countries.

More recently, the Conservatives have been part of a new WTO process which seeks to bring public services under direct influence of trade agreements called Trade in Services Agreement (TISA).

Calling for trade justice

The federal Conservatives and right-wing allies in the media and big business continue their assault on the credibility of those that call for a more democratic, open and fair trade negotiations and agreements.

The main objective of free-trade advocates is to discredit trade justice activists as being generally anti-trade and extremist. Unfortunately, this strategy has worked to undermine our position even with progressive politicians in Ottawa and in provincial governments that do not want to be seen to be aligned with the fictitious “anti-trade” movement.

Trade justice activists are calling for the full text of CETA to be officially released (full text of CETA have been leaked) to allow for open and democratic debate by Canadians before the negotiations are finished. We are also calling for the investor state provisions to be removed.

There is no way to “build a better” Investor-State Dispute Settlement process. These processes are fundamentally flawed, and have one goal: transfer power away from governments and to multinational corporations.

The trade justice community are not anti-trade. However, we are against agreements that go well beyond trade to institute special corporate rights systems. Canada has been a trading nation for hundreds of years, we do not have to trade away our democratic rights to maintain or expand our trading relationships.

The European centre-left parties and movements in the UK, France and Germany have taken a strong stand against investor-state provisions, as have the labour aligned groups and parties in Australia, Brazil, South Africa, India and Indonesia.So much opposition has been directed at investor-state that the new Japan-Australia agreement does not include the provision.

It is time for Canadians to join our global allies and call for trade justice and aprogressive alternative to free trade for Canadian workers.