Unions around the world respond to TPPA

Briar Edmonds takes a look at global reponses to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and how unions are engaging with governments taking part in the secret negotiations.

WP 20150815 015Flick on the TV and take a look at the news – you’ll be hard pressed to find a bulletin that doesn’t mention the TPPA (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement). The TPPA has become perhaps the most contentious trade agreement in history.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s website describes the TPPA as: “aim[ing] to create a regional free trade agreement … [that] would deepen economic ties between its diverse members by opening up trade in goods and services, boosting investment flows, and promoting closer links across a range of economic policy and regulatory issues.”

We don’t know how, because the TPPA is shrouded in secrecy. The deal is being hammered out behind closed doors, with the strategy being that only once the ‘sculpture is in its final form’ will parliaments get to vote on an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it final agreement. In NZ, our parliament won’t even get a vote – Cabinet will decide.

Luckily, some parts of the TPPA have leaked. These show the agreement is about more than just trade. It includes prosecution for digital copyright infringement, enforcement of pharmaceutical copyright and a process which lets corporations sue a country’s government.

Despite its potential impact, the TPPA remains hidden from public scrutiny. A number of large corporations, however, have been able to see (and likely influence) the TPPA’s contents. The agreement could end up doing better for big corporations than for some of the signing countries.

Unions are calling for transparency on this deal, which would cover about 40% of global trade.

In May this year, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) called on the Australian government “to release the text for parliamentary debate and public scrutiny or withdraw Australia from negotiations” – a stance echoed by the PSA and other unions globally. Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of Public Services International (PSI) said last month:

“The secrecy of this deal is hiding the true impacts. This is why we call for a halt to negotiations, for the text to be released so that qualified … academics can make impact assessments.”

Using what little leaked information there is on the TPPA, unions in different parts of the world are also shining light on a range of concerns.

Canadian union ‘Teamsters Canada’  condemned the TPPA in its current form for restricting the right of working families to affordable medicines and for allowing foreign investors to sue elected governments.

In a May media release, the ACTU said: “ISDS will enable foreign corporations to avoid our legal system, hold unreasonable sway over our legislative process and effectively hold our public policy formation to ransom through the empowerment of multinational corporations to sue our governments.”

The impacts on healthcare have also been a lightning rod. Pharmac, which buys medication in bulk, saving New Zealand’s health system significant amounts of money, could be at risk. Analysts looking at the leaked healthcare annex of the TPPA said it “appears to be designed to cripple New Zealand’s strong public healthcare programme and to inhibit the adoption of similar programmes in developing countries”.

A report by prominent healthcare academics called “Negotiating
Healthy Trade”, endorsed by the PSA, backed up these concerns. The report highlighted how the TPPA extends beyond simple trade matters and restricts government’s ability to provide quality public services and effectively regulate because of the way it prioritises the profits of multinational corporations.

In the US, unions have been fighting against the TPPA’s lack of protections for workers’ rights. Unions and their supporters in Congress have seen a raft of previous free-trade agreements signed with side-deals to protect workers’ rights, which have simply not worked.

“We keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again,” Rep. Donna Edwards (Democrat from Maryland) said in April at a rally of organised labour groups. “I was standing on those steps when NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] passed and they told us, ‘Guess what? We have all these service sector jobs, we’re not going to lose those.”

But the agreement led to the closing of numerous call centres around the US, including in her district, she said, “and we’re just not going to fall for that again.”

April marked the fourth anniversary of another deal to protect workers in Colombia. To appease US union opposition to a trade agreement with the South American country – infamous for paramilitary violence against union organisers – the Obama administration pledged to hold Colombia more accountable for improving workers’ protections.

The two countries agreed to a ‘labour action plan’ in April 2011, with benchmarks the Colombians had to meet before year’s end. Colombia made enough progress to certify it had fulfilled its obligations, and received trade benefits under the deal starting the following year.    

Unions like the AFL – CIO have emphasised that while Colombia was making progress on workers’ rights before receiving the deal’s benefits, the US lost all leverage once those benefits took effect. The union cited a recent report showing Colombian workers have experienced nearly 2000 threats and acts of violence and 105 union activists have been assassinated since the plan was instituted.

Alongside protecting workers’ rights and specific concerns arising from what little leaked information is available, it is clear that for unions throughout the world, the TPPA’s lack of transparency is at the heart of how we are responding to this free-trade agreement.

PSA members across the country joined marches against the TPPA in August, because we believe the deal will be bad for public services and bad for our democracy.

Find out more about the TPPA on the website of It’s Our Future, a nationwide campaign group the PSA has supported.