It’s not difficult to see the impacts of many of the various so-called “free trade” agreements which are in force around the world. The effects on employment, manufacturing, consumer safety and environment are all very well-documented. Most especially, we’ve all heard and read of workers in corporate facilities overseas being paid abysmally low wages, being treated inhumanely, being held as prisoners, and even committing suicide on the job. There is also rampant wage theft, of course, even when the base pay is very poor.
At the same time, we’ve seen the shuttering of American factories, the mass exodus of good jobs with good benefits to overseas markets, and the further weakening of our already feeble domestic trade unions. We’ve also seen our employee benefits decrease, across the board, along with decreases in real wages for middle- and low-income earners.
All this has been occurring in conjunction dramatic increases in earnings for corporations and the top few percent of individuals. It’s no secret that these trade agreements have contributed to the further widening of the economic divide and to income inequality. Of course, we knew all this when they were passed. But, there was nothing we could do about it. The people don’t, in fact, govern the country. Our corporations do.
We now live in a world where cheap products are made in the world’s poorest countries, by the world’s most oppressed workers. Then, these products (often of poor quality and questionable safety) are shipped halfway around the world, consuming vast quantities of fuel, clogging the world’s waterways, introducing invasive species to wreak havoc on our fisheries, and polluting both the oceans and the atmosphere.
After these products arrive on our shores, they are then shipped, stocked and sold by even more oppressed workers – workers who are paid so little for full-time employment, they often qualify for food stamps and cash assistance from the government. In this way, our taxes supplement the ridiculously inadequate paychecks which are written by some of the world’s most profitable corporations. None of this is the will of the people, of course. It is the will of the banks and corporations.
But, there is more to the story than the obvious depredations of human dignity.
At their heart, these international pacts create an environment where polluters can pollute with impunity and public health is practically a non-issue. Granted, workers’ rights are often written into the agreements. But, in practice, there are generally no real enforcement mechanisms. So, of course, the regulations are all but ignored.
The TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) is an important example of such an agreement. In fact, it will be the largest agreement of its kind, with NAFTA being the largest at the time of this writing. If the TPP is ratified by the governing bodies of the 14 countries involved, there will be long-term widespread repercussions for the participating countries, as well as for the rest of the globe. The positive effects are almost exclusively to the benefit of banks, corporations and corporate interests. But, overall, the effects of the TPP will be extremely detrimental to the average citizen. Of that, there can be no doubt.
To begin with, our few remaining middle-class manufacturing jobs will almost certainly disappear. They will be shipped overseas, of course, to places like Brunei and Vietnam. As might be expected, most financial gains which result from the TPP will go to those earning at least $88,000 per year. For owners of intellectual property, though, the gains will be exceptionally large. This includes pharmaceuticals, which will have extensive patent protection. These protections will make drugs more expensive and will prevent competitors from bringing generic drugs to the market for many years. This hurts consumers a great deal. No one should be made to choose between food, medicine and housing.
But, such awful dilemmas are all too common for people in today’s world, even in a country like the US.
It is impossible to deny there will be some economic benefit for some desperately poor populations. However, these increases will come at great cost to both the environment and to public health. While the authors of the agreement may suggest that environmental protections will be increased, we know this to be untrue. There are regulations, of course, but these rules will have no effective means of enforcement. This will make them meaningless to employers, for all intents and purposes.
More alarming than that, though, are the mechanisms of arbitration which are mandated by the TPP. Confidential tribunals will settle disputes between countries and corporations, as we see in many current cases around the world.
To illustrate, a good example might be found with the case of Ethyl Corporation v. Canada. Ethyl makes a gasoline additive called MMT. When burned, MMT produces manganese, a heavy metal and known neurotoxin. Canada has used this additive in their gas since the 1970s. However, after discovering MMT’s alarming health risks, Canada banned it in April, 1997.
Consequently, Ethyl Corporation sued Canada under Chapter 11 of NAFTA for $251 million. Three provinces also sued under the Agreement on Internal Trade, an intergovernmental agreement between Canadian provinces, territories and the Canadian federal government.
The NAFTA suit was judged in favor of Ethyl Corporation. Therefore, Canadian government repealed the ban on a known neurotoxin and paid $15 million in compensation to Ethyl. So, even now, Canadian citizens are being exposed to an insidious heavy metal, which is a known neurotoxin, solely to sustain the ongoing profits of a single corporate enterprise. Essentially, the Canadian government doesn’t have the legal right to protect its own citizens. This is due to provisions is NAFTA, the largest trade agreement on Earth.