One day in September, Isidro Rivera Barrera, a contract worker and labor organizer who was campaigning at an Ecopetrol refining facility in Barrancabermeja, Colombia, was reportedly gunned down outside his home. His death was met with the usual silence—just business as usual in a country with one of the world’s worst human rights records for attacks on trade unionists. But now, the hushed suffering of Colombian workers reverberates in the U.S. Capitol, which has just passed a deal to bring even more business-as-usual to Colombia.
Congress last week approved three long-pending trade deals with Panama, South Korea and Colombia. The rationale behind each of them is dubious; there’s little evidence that the agreements will lift up the U.S. economy and plenty that they could lead to massive job loss in key sectors. But free trade deals have always been less about creating jobs than exporting neoliberal ideology to the Global South, thereby accelerating poor nations’ cascade toward low labor standards, environmental exploitation and deregulation.
The new trade deals had been stalled under the Bush administration, due to concerns that they would undermine human rights and economic security in the same way the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) wreaked havoc on Mexico and the U.S. years before. But the Obama administration has picked up where its predecessor left off and finalized these corporate wish lists.
Fair-trade activists and labor groups, both in the U.S. and in the civil societies of “partner” nations, warn that the new deals will only exacerbate the inequities that landed the global economy in the ongoing crisis: lax labor standards and unfettered corporate greed, along with a blank check to abuse the environment and trample indigenous people’s land rights. Buoyed by the momentum of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a diverse coalition of groups gave one last push to block the deals in the final days before the vote. But hammering lawmakers with phone calls and emails didn’t shake bipartisan dedication to the pacts.
The three deals collectively represent the spectrum of grievances that advocates have raised about free trade at home and abroad.
The Panama deal, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, would do little to improve economic conditions, but would promote development under a regime known for “unhesitating corruption,” nested in an infamous offshore tax haven for corporate cronies.
The Colombia deal, meanwhile, has been denounced by human rights advocates and labor unions for having prettily worded, but deeply inadequate labor protections. Just as the ink was drying on the deal, Colombian trade unionists took to the streets to protest exploitative working conditions under multinational bosses in Puerto Gaitán, and Colombia’s government faced international condemnations for failing to address a long-standing epidemic of retaliatory attacks on labor activists.
“It is anti-social for any nation to adopt a free trade agreement with Colombia so long as that government continues to allow impunity for the cowards who commit cold blooded murder on trade unionists,” Dick Blin of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions, which has campaigned on the Ecopetrol case, told Colorlines.com.
But what might be deemed “anti-social” from a human rights standpoint can pass for “international partnership” in Washington. The South Korea trade deal, which is expected to encourage more offshoring of U.S.-based jobs while eroding consumer and labor protections, illustrates the curious ethical calculations that guide global commerce. As the legislation neared approval, the administration opened a loophole specifically for U.S. manufacturers to export cars that fall short of South Korea’s emissions standards, effectively offshoring American pollution to a country with more progressive environmental policy.
Environmental activists have in fact argued broadly that the trade deals would usher in environmentally destructive development—take, for instance, palm oil plantations, which could displace Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.
As fair trade activists revamp their campaigns in the wake of last week’s congressional vote, many have aligned themselves with the various Occupation movements that have sprung up around the country. Sukjong Hong of Korean Americans for Fair Trade, who works with Occupy Wall Street’s nascent Trade Justice Working Group, explains:
We know that the votes were conducted quickly, without much fanfare or public debate, and they took place a year before the 2012 elections so that voters will forget—but we want them to know we will not forget. Obama broke his promise as a presidential candidate to review and repeal the NAFTA trade model and his own opposition to the U.S.-Colombia trade deal because of human rights issues.
Still, a substantial minority of House members did vote against the free trade deals. Arthur Stamoulis of Citizens Trade Campaign said this suggests that even in Congress, skepticism about mantra-like promotion of free trade has grown, though not by enough:
Despite [the movement’s success in] convincing more than two-thirds of House Democrats to stand with working constituents and vote against these pacts, the decision by so many freshmen Republicans to collude with the White House on passing these job-killing agreements was impossible to overcome…. The so-called Tea Party Republicans and President Obama both abandoned their bases to curry favor with corporate offshorers, tax evaders and Wall Street executives.
And as we’ve reported before, the administration is already greasing the skids for an even broader trade deal, a NAFTA-style deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would stretch from Chile to Vietnam.
Meanwhile, concrete ideas to reform free trade systems generally get little attention in the Beltway. But Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown’s proposed TRADE Act, would allow lawmakers to revise existing deals and establish stronger safeguards for labor, environment and other social issues in future trade pacts.
The threadbare protections that politicians have touted in existing trade deals have proven useless in fighting sweatshops. Jeff Ballinger at Labor Notes details what real safeguards would look like:
We know that including labor rights language in trade deals hasn’t stopped global corporations from exploiting workers and whitewashing their records with “social responsibility” baloney. So what can? Strong unions, pressure groups of consumers, and truly independent factory monitors are an imperfect—but far better—combination to hold them accountable.
The grassroots uprisings that have erupted around the globe this year show that real change happens when ordinary people are willing to look horizontally for solutions, reaching outside the establishment to engage peers and neighbors in reshaping the status quo.
“Really, it’s all about grassroots education and movement building,” says Stamoulis of the Citizens Trade Campaign. “Nobody said taking on some of the most powerful economic interests in world history would be easy. We’re in this for the long haul.”
Michelle Chen is a regular contributor to Colorlines.com.