Lana Payne: Trading away the potential for stronger labour rights

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The Telegram | 7 July 2018

Lana Payne: Trading away the potential for stronger labour rights

With all the talk of demanding (as our government should) labour rights under NAFTA that are progressive and enforceable, it begs the question: what happened to demanding those rights when negotiating the new Trans-Pacific trade deal?

Canada capitulated in a rush to sign any trade deal.

It was a missed opportunity to create a new precedent for trade agreements. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but workers were sold out, proving that these trade deals have never been about raising the standards for workers, but creating profit for corporations.

Instead, we got the same old-same old. This refusal to look at the mistakes of the past and fix them when we have a chance is one of the many reasons people are desperately looking for something new in politics. And this one is on the International Trade department, led by Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.

Recently, the minister tabled a refurbished Trans-Pacific trade pact in the House of Commons — a deal involving Canada, Japan and nine other Pacific Rim nations. The deal brings relatively little benefit to Canada, while creating great uncertainty for important industries, including auto and dairy.

This was an agreement once believed dead, after U.S. President Donald Trump severed ties to the accord. But in March, a new agreement was resurrected, despite popular opposition. Its text was unchanged, except for 22 suspended articles, a gaggle of new side letters and a new moniker: the Comprehensive and Progressive agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, which drew the ire of many with a vested interest.

This rebranding was a slap in the face to activists who, for decades, had pursued alternative models of progressive trade and development. A close inspection of the CPTPP suggests this criticism is well-founded. There is nothing progressive about it, especially with regard to labour standards and the rights of workers. In fact, this new, so-called “progressive” version of the TPP contains far weaker ambitions on labour compared to the original pact, in at least four key areas.

First, struck from the CPTPP was a clause clarifying that government and other public entities that purchase goods and services may require contractors to comply with basic labour standards as a condition of procurement. Such a clause might have proven an effective tool in raising work standards, especially among the lowest-wage countries in the trading bloc (like Mexico and Vietnam), where there is minimal adherence to basic standards, an over-reliance on informal, unregulated labour markets, and lax enforcement.

Second, at the insistence of U.S. negotiators, the original TPP included a comprehensive side accord that outlined a set of required labour reforms targeting Vietnam. These reforms would have enabled Vietnamese workers to organize local, grassroots unions.

The side accord also required changes to Vietnamese labour law, preventing interference in worker organizing, combating forced labour, and guarding against gender discrimination, among other measures.

Under the new CPTPP, this side accord does not exist. In its place is a scaled-down, far less ambitious set of commitments negotiated between Canada and Vietnam.

The reality is, anything less than ironclad commitments embedded in these action plans are very difficult to monitor and enforce.

Third, under the original TPP, similar side accords (or “action plans”) were in place for both Brunei and Malaysia — two member states with notorious labour and human rights records. Under the CPTPP, these deals have vanished altogether.

Lastly, and perhaps most concerning, is that the unchanged language of the CPTPP labour chapter has proven incapable of protecting the rights of workers.

Originally drawn up by U.S. negotiators, the chapter includes legal tests that are far too stringent — if not impossible — to meet.

These tests were used when a panel of arbitrators overseeing a historic labour dispute between the U.S. and Guatemala found that none of the documented labour violations in Guatemala (including the murder of union organizers) occurred “in a manner affecting trade” or that the events in question were “sustained or recurring” — two critical tests outlined in the chapter. As a result, Guatemala faced no trade penalty or trade sanction. Under these criteria, it is hard to imagine any nation ever being subject to trade penalties when violating labour rights.

Knowing all of this, Canada’s lead CPTPP negotiator said the labour chapter was “very robust.” At every turn, government officials boast of the CPTPP’s “progressive” credentials, yet fail to acknowledge these obvious shortcomings.

It is simply wrong to mislead the Canadian people this way.

The Guatemala tribunal gave us a measuring stick with which to gauge the strength or effectiveness of the labour language.

Today there can be no excuses. The parties who signed off on the CPTPP deal were fully aware of the problems, the tribunal ruling and key labour exclusions. Political leaders wilfully gave a green light to a deal that didn’t even attempt to clarify, much less amend, language that fails working people.

Call this new trade deal what you want. Just don’t call it progressive.

Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for Unifor. She can be reached by email at lanapaynenl@gmail.com. Twitter: @lanampayne Her column returns in two weeks.

source: The Telegram