Category Archives: Trade

Promoting the Dignity of Labor in NAFTA Negotiations

Promoting Dignity of Labor in NAFTA Negotiations

Mary Cunningham
July 30, 2018

When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1994, the United States, Canada, and Mexico hailed it as a groundbreaking deal that would bring job growth, economic vitality and improved living standards to all three countries. Despite these promises, the trade deal failed to live up to the hype and has resulted in stifled wages in Mexico and the U.S., mass migration from Mexico to the U.S., and no improvement in labor and environmental protections.  After the passage of NAFTA, the U.S. flooded the Mexican market with corn, decreasing the value of Mexican corn by 66% which led directly to farmer displacement and migration.  Wages in Mexico have fallen below pre-NAFTA levels as have worker’s wages in the U.S. Likewise, America’s small farmers have been forced to compete with large industrial agricultural corporations against which they don’t stand a chance. NAFTA was negotiated by and for the big corporations and has failed workers on all sides of the table.

This brings us to the current state of NAFTA today. During his campaign and continuing into his presidency, President Trump dismissed NAFTA, declaring it “the worst trade deal.” He believes NAFTA is to blame for the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs and the exportation of jobs to countries with lower production costs, like Mexico. President Trump’s distaste for NAFTA set the stage for NAFTA renegotiations led by U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer. Thus far, there have been 7 rounds of talks, but no conclusive agreement has been reached.  Following the election of the new Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), negotiators from Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. have a window to try to conclude an agreement; however, the negotiations are more likely to continue into 2019.  As the Wall Street Journal reports, several of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s priorities align with President Trump’s, increasing the likelihood of reaching a consensus on negotiations. Although there has been tension between President Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following the G-7 meeting, Canada and the U.S. are important trade partners and it is in both of their country’s interest to continue talks.

The main goals of the negotiations include updating trade practices to reflect new advancements in technology and “fixing” parts of the agreement that haven’t worked.  For the administration, this means eliminating certain investor protections that force federal governments to pay fines to transnational companies. It also means improving Mexican labor laws to combat the low wages and unfair labor standards which the administration argues have led to mass migrations and a precipitous decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs.  Part of the U.S. proposal is to have automobile parts manufactured in work zones with a minimum wage of $15. This would spur manufacturing in the U.S. and simultaneously increase wages in Mexico.  Mexican negotiations have expressed openness to these objectives although the business communities in all three countries vigorously object to provisions that protect workers and end investor courts.

Only by paying attention to the plight of the workers impacted by NAFTA can a comprehensive deal be reached. Although negotiations are complicated, a deal that treats all workers with the respect and dignity they deserve is possible. This means guaranteeing stable wages, the right to unionize, and worker protections. NAFTA has not lived up to its expectations, but these negotiations are a promising step forward.

 

NETWORK Statement on NAFTA

Renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement

Laura Peralta-Schulte
May 18, 2017

Download as a PDF.

When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) passed almost a quarter of a century ago, proponents promised it would lead to job creation in North America, increased living standards for workers and protection of the environment. The current agreement has been beneficial to some, but reality shows the agreement falls woefully short of being the boon it was promised to be. NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice is committed to mending the gaps in income and wealth disparity, and it is clear that our trade agreements have been one of the drivers of that inequality, both domestically and abroad.

Some of the most adversely impacted communities are small farmers in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. In Mexico, for example, we have seen population losses in the countryside and increased food insecurity. In the U.S. and Canada, there are fewer farmers left to work the land as industrial agriculture takes over production. Rural dislocation has been a leading cause of migration from Mexico to the North because small farmers cannot support themselves at home. Trade policies like NAFTA widen the gaps between rich and poor.

Renegotiating NAFTA offers the possibility to address food insecurity, remedy the incentive that drives rural dislocation, and fix other problems. However, to do so, the Administration must seek changes that puts the needs of vulnerable communities first. To do so, there must be an open and transparent process so that all communities – not just the corporate community – have a seat at the table. We need a trade policy that puts people and the planet first.

Pope Francis reminds us that access to adequate food is a basic human right, one that people of faith are called by the Gospel to address. “We are in front of a global scandal of around one billion — one billion people who still suffer from hunger today. We cannot look the other way and pretend this does not exist… We need, then, to find ways by which all may benefit from the fruits of the earth, not only to avoid the widening gap between those who have more and those who must be content with the crumbs, but above all because it is a question of justice, equality and respect for every human being.”

Trade policy must address issues of inequality and the alleviation of poverty. A people first agenda means creating an environment where small farmers are not be forced to migrate to ensure that their families can survive, workers receive living wages, people have access to life-saving medicines, and the environment is protected from destruction.

Blog: June 22 Trade Update – Messy Business of Passing an (Unjust) Trade Bill

June 22 Trade Update – Messy Business of Passing an (Unjust) Trade Bill

By Laura Peralta-Schulte
June 22, 2015

The Obama administration is in the process of negotiating many significant trade agreements with countries around the world.  One such agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement with 12 countries accounting for 40% of world GDP, is nearing completion.  All trade agreements are negotiated in secret and informed by an elaborate system of official advisory committees that are overwhelmingly corporate.  That is why current trade agreements, while perhaps sounding good in theory, do not promote the common good.  Voices of all affected people are not included in negotiations.

In order to ease the passage of this and other trade agreements, the administration has asked Congress to pass a bill providing “fast track” trade promotion authority (TPA).  Under fast track, TPP and other agreements will receive what is known as a “privileged vote” meaning that time for debate is limited, the agreement cannot be edited, and Congress has a short period of time in which to conduct a simple yes or no vote.  The fast track bill currently under consideration in Congress provides for this special process for six years, so that this administration as well as the next could use fast track to pass other major agreements. Two such agreements are currently under discussion: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) – between the U.S. and European Union countries – and the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) – a multilateral service agreement.

On May 22, the Senate passed a fast track trade bill that contained three key provisions. The first provision provides fast trade authority for up to six years, the second provides trade adjustment assistance [TAA] to help workers displaced by the trade bill, and the third makes miscellaneous customs modifications – including an amendment on human trafficking.  That bill was sent to the House for consideration.

House Republicans leaders found that it would be difficult to pass comprehensive trade legislation through their caucus, so they decided to split the Senate bill into three pieces.  All three pieces of legislation had to pass the House to reach the president’s desk.  The most controversial provision for Republicans was providing trade adjustment assistance (TAA); conservative Republicans argue that TAA represents wasteful welfare spending.  The leadership was hoping to pass the fast track and customs provisions with large Republican majorities and believed that Democrats would provide the lion’s share of votes for TAA.   To their surprise, the Democrats and a significant number of Republicans did not support TAA.  TAA was voted down by a large majority, sinking – temporarily at least – passage of the trade bill.

President Obama and the House Republican leadership, backed by the business community, responded with backdoor deals and devised an alternative way to get fast track approved.  The House decided to push through a TPA-only bill and quickly passed it late last week by a vote of 218-208. The measure moves to the Senate tomorrow.  If it is passed, the president will gain fast-track authority to sign the TPP into law.  Tomorrow you will receive a special alert, asking you to tell your Senator to vote NO on fast track, so that you can make justice happen and make the common good, not special interests, the top priority in trade agreements.

Blog: Trade Agreements Can Have a Huge Impact on a Nation’s Life

Blog: Trade Agreements Can Have a Huge Impact on a Nation’s Life

By Carolyn Burstein
October 16, 2014

Included in every significant U.S. trade deal of the past 25 years is a system of private tribunals, known as the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), which allows corporations to sue governments when they feel that their financial interests have been breached by a government policy, rule or regulation. These suits are not heard in any court, but in an extra-governmental tribunal consisting of three judges engaged for just that one case. And there is no appeal from that tribunal to a higher court. Under ISDS, there is no higher court.

The position of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), who represents the U.S., is that ISDS attracts foreign investment by protecting investors from government expropriation or rogue judgments in countries with weak judicial systems. The inclusion of ISDS mechanisms in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the most significant trade agreement between the U.S. and the EU currently in negotiation, has actually endangered its passage because of growing opposition from strong constituencies in both the EU and the U.S. At this point, officials in both areas as well as their respective business groups support the inclusion of ISDS in the TTIP, although approval is waning among EU leadership (more on this later).

While the above reasons of the USTR for favoring ISDS hardly pertains to the EU where well-established legal systems and effective protections for investors exist, the U.S. insists that the goal of the TTIP is to close loopholes in existing bilateral deals and set a high standard for future trade agreements, especially in countries whose judicial systems are not as highly developed as those in Europe. However, those arguments have not convinced the majority of those who oppose ISDS.

The Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament has written several reasons on its website why ISDS is not needed in the TTIP and they are similar to arguments presented by groups on both sides of the Atlantic. These “fundamental flaws” in the dispute system were listed in mid-July 2014 after a period of public consultation (a significant exercise in transparency not used as extensively in the U.S.):

  • ISDS has a chilling effect on regulations because of the possibility of a costly legal dispute between a government and a company. The costs of defending a case are so high — $8million on average — as to act as a disincentive to public policies that might affect corporate interests. The threat alone acts as a deterrent for governments in their efforts to protect citizens or their environment.
  • Almost 75,000 companies (the number of U.S. companies operating in the EU and vice versa) could potentially seek damages from the U.S. and the EU governments (thus citizens, through taxes).
  • Only foreign investors can use ISDS panels (or tribunals); regular citizens and domestic companies must continue to use the normal legal system of courts.
  • ISDS is explicitly designed to operate outside the regular legal system and does not require that local remedies be exhausted, thus undermining democracy and the rule of law.
  • ISDS allows companies to sue governments for any legislation they deem unfair or inequitable that is developed after the treaty becomes effective, thus fundamentally shifting the balance of power between investors and states in a way that undermines fair resolution of legal disputes.
  • ISDS is not bound by legal precedent, which makes many of its decisions seem arbitrary and introduces a high level of uncertainty into the system.
  • ISDS is the only international dispute settlement system giving rights to corporations instead of states.
  • EU guidelines mandate an impact assessment in any situation where substantial sums can be transferred from the EU to foreign entities. Such an impact has never occurred.
  • ISDS proceedings are held behind closed doors and are totally non-transparent even though cases may involve an issue of high public interest.
  • Even without ISDS mechanisms, the EU and U.S. already trade huge volumes ($2.2 billion in 2012), proving that ISDS is unnecessary.
  • Risk insurance is offered to all companies by a host of providers, one of many alternatives to ISDS.
  • Corporations have become more aggressive in the past few years with substantial challenges to government policies. Only 50 ISDS claims were filed in the first 50 years of investor-state dispute settle, but 58 new cases were initiated in 2012 alone. In a September 4, 2014 letter to the USTR, an array of U.S. organizations (e.g. AARP, AFL-CIO, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — CBPP, Consumers Union) wrote: “Biased outcomes, large compensation awards and the potential for forcing policy changes appear to be driving an unprecedented number of challenges by global corporations.”
  • U.S. state and local governments have no standing to defend the state and local policies that are often challenged in ISDS cases.

Most importantly, in light of the primary reason given by the USTR for supporting ISDS, there is no conclusive evidence that signing investment treaties with ISDS mechanisms leads to increased foreign investment. As a matter of fact, nearly all governments around the globe are doing everything they can to lure foreign investment and few are experiencing difficulty if they have sound domestic policies in place — not trade agreements. For example, neither Brazil nor China has signed many trade treaties, yet both have attracted substantial amounts of foreign direct investment, according to an article in the October 1, 2014 issue of the Financial Times.

It appears that many of the foregoing problems with ISDS as well as numerous concrete examples from countries with ISDS trade agreements have given pause to officials in the EU, especially after they received more than 150,000 comments (mostly against the inclusion of ISDS in the TTIP) during their public consultation period. They have also been influenced by the countries of South Africa, Brazil, India and Indonesia, which have established policies against ISDS-type tribunals in international trade agreements.

Lauding South Africa’s policy of opposition to ISDS, Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, wrote that the real reason for including such tribunals in any investment agreement is “to restrict governments’ ability to regulate and tax corporations — that is, to restrict their ability to impose responsibilities, not just uphold rights. Corporations are attempting to achieve by stealth — through secretly negotiated trade agreements — what they could not attain in an open political process” (quoted in an April 24, 2014 blog by Thomas McDonagh in “Our Kingdom: Power and Liberty in Britain”).

What are some egregious examples handled by secretive trade tribunals that have impelled a change of attitude in many German officials, including Angela Merkel, in the new President of the European Parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker, and in numerous other EU officials? Here are a handful of many cases that are offensive to most democratic countries:

  • Philip Morris International v Australia’s Plain Packaging Law: the company maintains that Australia has expropriated its intellectual property by insisting that its cigarettes be sold in plain drab packaging with warning labels and stark images of their unhealthy effects on the human anatomy, as Australia’s 2011 law demands. Case is still pending, according to an October 6, 2014 article in the Financial Times.
  •  Eli Lilly (pharmaceuticals) v Canada: the company claims that a Canadian court decision which invalidated one of its patents breached international obligations that are part of NAFTA. This case challenged in a trade tribunal a drug patent ruling from a Canadian court, according to an August 1, 2014 issue of Citizens Press.
  • Lone Pine (Canadian Oil and Gas Company) v Quebec: the company claims that Quebec’s moratorium against all oil and gas exploration activities under the St. Lawrence River, adopted by the province in June 2011, is a form of indirect expropriation without compensation of the company’s potential future profits.
  • Vattenfall (a Swedish energy company) v Germany: the company has sued Germany through the ISDS process for its post-Fukushima decision to phase out nuclear power plants throughout the country. This case followed a prior case in which approval of Vattenfall’s permit to build a coal-fired power plant was conditioned on its taking measures to protect the Elbe River from its waste products. Because of the company insisting on $1.9 billion in damages, Germany eventually lifted its conditions and allowed the company to build the plant, according to a Harold Meyerson editorial in the October 9, 2014 Washington Post.
  • Pacific Rim (a Canadian mining company) v El Salvador: the company contaminated 90% of El Salvador’s surface water and when the government attempted to withdraw its mining permit, Pacific Rim sought $314 million in damages, an outrageous amount based on El Salvador’s GDP (that amount would be equal to nearly 2% of its GDP), according to Lauren Carasik in the October 1, 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs.

The latter case is emblematic of tribunals awarding damages that are not only onerous for struggling economies like that of El Salvador, but force their eventual capitulation, and make them wary of laws sought by environmentalists to prevent global warming. After all, do secretive tribunals have the power to dictate the terms of development for emerging economies?

In the EU environmentalists worry that the TTIP’s inclusion of ISDS panels would allow big U.S. oil companies to challenge anti-fracking laws in various countries and other strict environmental regulations. Consumer groups and others are disturbed by the possibility that the EU’s ban on genetically modified foods will be challenged by American agribusiness. These are major concerns outlined in a March 10, 2014 article written by Shawn Donnan in the Financial Times.

Groups in the U.S. also have concerns about the consequences of accepting the standard clauses of ISDS in the TTIP and other trade agreements. For example, many of these groups point to global pharmaceutical companies that could challenge state legislatures, the Congress, or public agencies in their ability to manage pharmaceutical costs in public programs. Probably the worst fear on both sides of the Atlantic, is the proliferation of cases before ISDS panels at the present time  involving investments in oil, gas and mining — 9 cases are currently pending in bilateral treaties between the U.S. and various countries in the EU, all brought by U.S. investors. At risk are a whole range of environmental laws and regulations.

It is one thing to have liberal economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman argue that ISDS panels undermine the sovereignty of nations, but it is quite another when the head of the trade division at the libertarian Cato Institute, Daniel Ikensen, says that ISDS protections not only have amounted to a corporate subsidy, but also that now such tribunals have become toxic. He continues to plead that ISDS be eliminated from all trade agreements.

Trade officials and supporters of ISDS contend that ISDS tribunals issue commonsense rulings, for the most part, and that frivolous cases rarely succeed. In addition, by allowing negotiations of ISDS to proceed, a welcome opportunity will be created for closing loopholes learned from other trade agreements and will raise the bar for future treaties. But, as some members of the Cato Institute claim, these arguments grossly underestimate the depth of popular opposition to the use of any ISDS mechanisms.

Some remedies that have been discussed include: clearly defining the grounds under which foreign investors may seek compensation; clarifying the nature of each dispute clause; opening all hearings, documents and cases to the public; and, exempting from challenge all regulatory actions designed to protect legitimate public welfare objectives such as public health, safety and the environment (these remedies are discussed in greater detail in a lengthy article in the October 1 issue of the Financial Times and a July 31, 2014 article in a Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ blog entitled “ISDS: A Sticky Issue in Both the TPP and TTIP”).

Skepticism, even outright rejection of retaining ISDS mechanisms in international trade agreements, is growing in both the EU and the U.S., making remedies appear rather quaint. In the U.S. suspicion of ISDS is partly fuelling the reluctance of Democrats to grant the president fast-track negotiating authority, according to Cato Institute’s Ikenson.

Nations with  poverty requiring them to seek foreign investment, should not be bullied by corporations, whose chief concern is to maximize profits, but should be able to protect their citizens through safeguards to their health, safety and general well-being and in accordance with their needs as well as those of their environment. The supporters of ISDS tribunals have not provided viable proof that they are either essential to international trade agreements or necessary for the implementation of the TTIP.

Despite Opposition, Colombia FTA Is Approved By Congress

Despite Opposition, Colombia FTA Is Approved By Congress

David Golemboski
October 14, 2011

On Wednesday, October 12, the U.S. Congress engaged in a rare act of bipartisan agreement. Unfortunately, the House and Senate did not move together to address unemployment, the country’s wealth gap, or other pressing matters of justice, but rather to pass a set of three misguided free trade agreements (FTAs) negotiated during the Bush administration. Both chambers approved FTAs with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia, the last of which is especially troubling. NETWORK has lobbied for several years to oppose the Colombia FTA, and we are disappointed that the agreement passed.

The Colombia agreement is anticipated to have a serious negative impact on many of the most vulnerable people in that country. The agricultural provisions of the agreement will flood the Colombian market with cheap imported commodities, undermining the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and rural communities. This will only accelerate displacement and exacerbate the conditions of instability and conflict that have plagued Colombia for decades. The agreement does not take adequate steps to address pervasive labor abuses. Even the refinements negotiated by the Obama administration are insufficient. Also, intellectual property rights provisions in the agreement will increase the cost of medicines in Colombia and lead to reduced access to critical drugs.

The good news concerning Wednesday’s vote is that a significant number of members of Congress stood in opposition to the flawed Colombia FTA. The months (years!) of lobbying by faith, labor, and human rights advocates helped to rally a strong statement of concern. NETWORK lobbyists made dozens of visits to congressional offices, and NETWORK members sent thousands of messages opposing the FTA. Unfortunately, President Obama had long ago abandoned his 2008 campaign promises to oppose the agreement, but nevertheless over 82 percent of Democrats voted against the Colombia FTA. Supporters of global trade justice should find reason for hope in the large number of votes against the agreement.

The coming months and years will challenge us to build on this work in fighting for fair and responsible trade agreements. The Obama administration has been working for over a year to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement between the U.S. and Pacific-rim countries. The administration has committed to securing a “high-standards” agreement, but it is unclear if this will amount to anything more than words. As the agreement proceeds through negotiations and eventually moves to the stage of congressional consideration, people of faith must raise the voice of justice to demand that U.S. global trade policies support authentic development and not merely corporate interests.

The passage of the Colombia FTA was a disappointing end to several years of advocacy on this issue, but it sets the stage for continued vigorous work to ensure just trade policy going forward.