When we fight Free Trade agreements, we often struggle to make it ‘real’ for people. What does downward standards harmonization look like? What does unaccountable behind-closed-doors arbitration really mean? What impacts do corporate driven agreements have on public services? What links can be directly drawn between free trade and quality of life?
Devastatingly, as we follow, protest, monkey wrench and resist the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiation round taking place in Lima, Peru this week, we have a concrete example. Free Trade looks like the 1,127 workers who perished in the sweatshops in the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh.
Since April 24, corporations have rushed to distance connections with the fugitive owner of the unsafe building, pledged compensation to the grieving families, and stepped up to act more responsibly. And while the negative PR from the disaster was enough to finally break European companies like H&M, Zara, Primark and Canadian grocery giant, Loblaws into signing a legally binding agreement to pay for third party safety inspections of their operations, the underlying cause of this, and other disasters, has yet to be challenged.
Across the world in countries like Bangladesh, companies operate to supply the North with cheap clothes made in sweatshops, made ‘competitive’ in the global market through corporate globalization.
Thanks to Free Trade agreements, companies pay workers less than a dollar a day (the workers in Rana Plaza were making $38 a month, an amount considered high – after it was raised following protests a year ago), make the right to organize illegal, ignore safety and environmental rights and sometimes bribe local officials to override local law to reap in billion dollar profits.
So, while the effort to rescue survivors and recover bodies from Rana Plaza now becomes an effort to clear and demolish the site, corporations like those that operated in Rana Plaza are, right now, lobbying for more Free Trade, for the TPP.
As the Lima round of TPP negotiations are underway (May 15-24) corporate interests are lobbying for more access to operate more sweatshops in Brunei, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. The Citizen’s Trade Campaign factsheet called ‘What Corporations Want With the TPP‘ directly links corporate lobbying to disappear worker protections and rights in pursuit of cheaper manufacturing and higher profits. They say:
“Many corporations are looking for ways reduce labor costs and undercut worker power in the United States, China and throughout the world. The TPP would grant corporations easier access to labor markets in countries such as Vietnam where workers are paid even less than Chinese sweatshop workers. Whether or not corporations decide to move their production to these lower-paid countries, the threat of moving there (or of being undercut by competitors who have already done so) can be used suppress employee compensation virtually anywhere in the world.“
We cannot let the victims of Rana Plaza be forgotten. The U.S. retail giants like GAP and Walmart that have refused to sign the safety agreement must be pressured to do so. But the TPP is slated to become the largest Free Trade Agreement in the world, and if we don’t stop it from happening and demand fair trade, we will suffer more even disasters.
TAKE ACTION! (Action items updated on 5/21/2013):