President Bush has submitted "free trade" deals with Peru, Colombia and Panama to Congress, hoping to put some life back into the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. He also is submitting a deal with South Korea, just under the deadline to get "fast track" consideration by this summer.
Democratic Congressional leaders have demanded changes to some of the worst aspects of the trade deals the Bush adminstration has negotiated. For example the Democrats would require that trading partners adopt and enforce International Labor Organization standards. The Bush deals only require countries to enforce their own labor laws, which may or may not meet ILO standards. On the environment, the Dems insist that nations implement and enforce common environmental agreements.
In the case of Colombia, the Washington Post reported April 10 that at least 400 union members have been killed by paramilitary death squads, allegedly in collaboration with the country's intelligence service, since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002.
At least two US firms have been implicated in anti-union violence in Colombia, the Post reported. An Alabama coal company, Drummond, is being sued in US District Court by Colombian workers who accuse company executives of contracting with paramilitary groups to kill three union leaders. Colombian prosecutors are also investigating the smuggling of 3,000 assault rifles in 2001 to a Chiquita Brands International dock in northern Colombia; the weapons wound up in the hands of paramilitary fighters, according to a report by the Organization of American States.
The Bush administration knew about the notorious anti-union violence in Colombia but it didn't bother to press Uribe for labor or human rights protections. Congress should reject these deals outright. Side deals on labor rights and the environment have proven to be unenforceable anyway, and Democrats have no reason to trust the good faith of Bush or his trade negotiators. For every objectionable feature Congressional Democrats are able to identify there may be a half-dozen bugs hidden in the paperwork.
For example, Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch (tradewatch.org) noted that the Peru and Panama deals threaten prevailing-wage laws and Buy-American and anti-offshoring laws. The Peru pact contains a provision requiring Peru to open its social security system to foreign private investment. (Could there be a secret provision that will end up privatizing the US Social Security system? Are we paranoid to consider that possibility?)
Unforeseen consequences are one of the perils of trade agreements. Global Trade Watch noted that the World Trade Organization's enforcement panel recently ruled that the US government failed to comply with a 2005 order to relax the US ban on Internet gambling. So the US must pay damages to Antigua, the Caribbean island nation that challenged the ban. Or Antigua could suspend its observance of copyright and patent protections, allowing high-tech pirates to set up shop in the island nation.
The WTO ruling also threatens state and federal gambling laws unrelated to online gaming as potential trade barriers. The European Union already has threatened a WTO challenge of US gambling laws. US trade negotiators opened the door in 1995 when they agreed to a "gambling and betting services" subcategory of "recreational services." State attorneys general were not meaningfully consulted and Congress failed to review the pact in detail due to fast-track procedures, which limits congressional review. The WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) allows nations to "take back" service sectors from WTO jurisdiction, but only after compensating trading partners for "lost business opportunities."
"We knew about the outrageous over-reach of the WTO into non-trade matters. What we didn't know is that the US [Trade Representative] could make mistakes of this magnitude -- signing up extremely sensitive areas of domestic law to WTO jurisdiction -- and then refuse to correct the enormous error when it was pointed out," said Global Trade Watch Director Lori Wallach. "These agreements need to be vetted more closely by states and by Congress. That scrutiny cannot occur under the current failed fast-track procedure."
Rather than pausing to reexamine the GATS agreement, Wallach noted, the federal government is negotiating to expand the scope of the WTO agreement. Trading partners are demanding that the US cover many more sectors under the terms of the agreement -- including energy services, higher education services, medical services and more. Many of these matters are regulated by states, but again state officials are not being meaningfully consulted about hidden dangers or these complex negotiations.
The Citizens Trade Campaign (citizenstrade.org) has released a letter from 713 national and local labor, religious, civil rights, environmental, farm, consumer and related groups that will oppose any new grant of fast-track trade authority to President Bush. Fast-track authority, which allows the president to submit trade deals for an up-or-down vote, ends June 30.
"Democrats came to a majority in no small part because scores of new members won election by opposing the Bush trade policy, so it is inconceivable to us that the new Democratic majority would provide new authority on trade to President Bush," said James P. Hoffa, Teamsters president and a CTC Executive Committee member.
Democrats would not be in the majority were it not for the 37 new "fair-trade" members of Congress, all of whom defeated "free-trade" Republican incumbents.
Free-trade expansion to Central and South America promises to send more US industrial jobs south while economic disruption -- particularly on farms -- can be expected to send more Central and South American workers north in search of service jobs, as we already have seen with millions of Mexican workers displaced under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
President Bush has called on Congress to enact immigration reform by August, but Democrats have no reason to hurry on that initiative, either. Bush knuckled under to the xenophobic elements of his party in proposing to require immigrants to return to their home countries and pay a $10,000 fee before they could be put in line for permanent residency. This effectively puts a green card out of reach of all but the well-to-do in Third-World countries such as Mexico.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has told the White House that Bush must produce at least 70 Republican votes in the House before she will consider bringing up an immigration bill for a vote, Jonathan Weisman wrote in the Washington Post. Pelosi said she will not seek to enforce party discipline on the issue after many of her party's conservatives had to weather attacks in the last election because of the party's support for immigration reform.
Pelosi knows she cannot trust Bush. Dems should oppose any "guest worker" provisions that allow employers to import foreign workers at substandard wages and working conditions. These provisions amount to indentured servitude for the imported workers -- who would not be able to bring their families -- but they still would take jobs away from citizens.
There is no shortage of labor in the United States. There is a shortage of jobs that pay a living wage. Congress should not address immigration "reforms" until it first provides for wages that lift American workers and their families out of poverty. -- JMC
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