By Jody McCutcheon
Outgoing US president Barack Obama must be in line for some sweet compensation for the generous “gift” he’s fighting so hard to leave behind for the world’s multinationals. Like “NAFTA on steroids,” according to one consumer advocate, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is an ugly, massive trade deal spanning twelve–with possibly more to come–Pacific Rim countries, including Australia, Chile, Japan, the NAFTA nations and Singapore. All told, forty percent of the world’s economy will be involved.
Despite its considerable scope, you’re excused if you haven’t heard of it. Secrecy abounds, ostensibly to protect TPP negotiations. As of now, we don’t even know what terms we’re dealing with, exactly. Drafts of the agreement can be seen only in a secure, soundproofed room in the Capitol building basement, with viewers required to surrender mobile recording devices and any notes taken. Some believe the secrecy cloaks the fact that our democratic rights are being sacrificed to corporate hegemony. Fortunately, free speech heroes WikiLeaks has released several excerpts since 2013 (e.g, here, here and here), and negotiators have offered up general summaries, providing a basic idea of what we’re up against.
While politicians and CEOs say the ABCs of the TTIP will invigorate the economy and mitigate Chinese economic dominance, the prevailing fear is that it’ll give a ridiculous amount of power to corporations, seriously eroding democracy, national sovereignty, and consumer and environmental protections in the process. If you care about your future (and the future of younger generations) it’s worth knowing the ABCs of the TTP.
Jobs Lost, Workplaces Worsened
As with most trade agreements, the TPP will eliminate tariffs between participating countries on imported, manufactured goods. Consequently, the TPP will end up siphoning middle-class jobs from North America. TPP supporters believe that tariff-free trade will allow US manufacturing companies to enjoy a significant uptick in exports, but with labour costs inevitably cheaper outside (North) America, you can bet the farm that Nike will soon be manufacturing all their shoes in Vietnam, since they will no longer be paying a thirty percent tariff on every imported pair. Sure, the TPP may lead to more income for (North) American companies, but it will result in a net loss of manufacturing jobs to countries that offer cheaper labour. And if workers in places like Bangladesh dare complain about their working conditions and draw attention to the brands that are guilty of using sweatshops and other human rights abuses, the companies using this cheap labour can sue the government for loss of expected profits (more about this below). No wonder despite harsh criticism from America, Mexico has vowed to steer clear of the deal (the nation surely learned some harsh lessons from NAFTA already).
A particularly frightening ingredient of the TPP is investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) arbitration. Already part of many trade agreements (including NAFTA), an ISDS basically allows corporations to sue foreign governments over policies and actions the corporation believes might interfere with “expected future profits” and if they win, they are compensated–with your hard earned taxpayer dollars. As such, ISDS arbitration makes companies more powerful than governments, and governments reluctant to create and enforce policies regarding matters like public health, environmental regulations and worker’s rights laws.
Many examples of ISDS lawsuits exist, but perhaps the most invidious concerns tobacco company Philip Morris suing both Australia and Uruguay over those countries’ implementation of smoking-reduction policies. Clearly, a company hiding behind ISDS arbitration believes it can tell a foreign government where to stick its human and environmental health measures, all under the auspices of recuperating lost expected future profits. Forget Rana Plaza in Bangladesh–hazardous working conditions may be coming to your own workplace, and there will be very little you can do about it.
Just as disconcerting is the fact that the arbitration tribunal responsible for hearing ISDS cases isn’t composed of elected judges, but rather of corporate lawyers, whose non-appealable decisions are bound by international law. When these “judges” complete their tribunal work, they simply remove their robes and return to their cushy corporate jobs. Can you say “conflict of interest?”
Your Health at Serious Risk
These corporate powers continue in a realm that is dear to us all: health. Last month, WikiLeaks published the Healthcare Annex to the secret draft “Transparency” Chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), along with each country’s negotiating position. The Healthcare Annex seeks to regulate state schemes for medicines and medical devices by forcing national healthcare authorities to give big pharmaceutical companies more information about national decisions on public access to medicine, and granting corporations greater powers to challenge decisions they perceive as harmful to their interests. In other words, all rejections of corporate medicine will be punished, and holistic/alternative forms of medicine will be even further marginalised.
In addition, the Annex appears to be designed to cripple strong public healthcare programmes in countries like New Zealand, the UK and Canada and aims to inhibit the adoption of similar programmes in developing countries. The Annex will also tie the hands of the US Congress in its ability to pursue reforms of the Medicare programme.
Food Safety Totally Gone
Another probable TPP victim will be food safety standards, and by extension, your and your family’s health. Corporations will regard food labels that warn consumers of harmful ingredients, including GMOs as potential barriers to expected future profits. Under looming threats of ISDS arbitration, governments will be bullied into curtailing labelling policies and practices. In other words, any information regarding how and where food is produced, and whether it’s genetically modified would be sacrificed to the greedy gods of corporate profit.
Such an action would snuff out nascent GMO food-labeling practices in the US and elsewhere. More troubling, what happens to an established anti-GMO cultures, such as those in France and Peru, a country that has enjoyed a ten-year, GMO moratorium? Theoretically, under the TPP, a company like Monsanto could sue the Peruvian government for blocking trade of its products, forcing the Peruvian government to reconsider its anti-GMO stance.
The TPP would also significantly damage small farmers’ prospects and local food economies. Take for example the 1.5 million (yes, million!) Mexican farmers who went bankrupt in the decade after NAFTA was enacted, because they were unable to compete with the highly subsidised (and nearly 100% GMO) US corn entering their market. In that decade, Mexico went from being self-sufficient corn producer to an importer of half its staple crop, with its population now paying premiums for Monsanto’s potentially poisonous GMO corn.
Against dwindling competition, Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta controlled fifty-seven percent of the 2013 global food market. Now Monsanto has designs on acquiring Syngenta. This ever-expanding monopoly on food supply is dangerous, as it offers localities less and less input on what to grow and how to grow it, and virtually zero input on food or crop safety. And with no real consensus, concerns persist over potential GMO-related health problems, such as food allergies, organ damage, cancer and the possibilities of passing antibiotic-resistant genes onto pathogenic bacteria in, say, a human stomach.
And what happens when an importing country’s food safety standards–controls on pesticide use, for example–exceed the exporting country’s standards? This could be considered an illegal trade barrier; a restriction on expected future profits, which would cause the company to go after ISDS compensation. Food safety standards are our right, and yet another serious issue the TPP aims to kill.
No News is Very Bad News
The Trans-Pacific Partnership Intellectual Property Rights Chapter released to WikiLeaks late last year contains a Trade Secrets section that allows for the criminalization of investigative journalists and whistleblowers.
The purpose of this section can only be interpreted to act as a chilling effect on writers–including me for this piece in Eluxe- who reveal corporate or government wrongdoing via the internet, aka a “computer system”, and discards the defense for investigative journalists that the information was provided by an anonymous source when that information is defined as an “unauthorized disclosure”. It’s also a direct attack on potential whistleblowers who may come across classified trade secrets that are a serious threat to public safety.
Governments were given sole discretion to classify information before TPP, and said they did so primarily for national security purposes. But now, thanks to the revelations of the NSA spying scandal revealed by Edward Snowden, it has been revealed that many of the government’s activities were not only illegal, but were illegally carried out internationally. What’s worse, there was no justification for spying on the hundreds of millions of innocent people whose privacy was breached. The Trans-Pacific Partnership assigns corporate information or “trade secrets” the same importance as national security concerns by allowing corporations to file for criminal enforcement when the released information may be detrimental to their economic interests. In other words, if you read here that, say, spinach causes cancer, we could be sued for any loss of profits spinach-based food companies suffer. That’s enough to keep the news strictly focused on the Kardashians, isn’t it?
Poor Getting Poorer
The TPP also addresses intellectual property matters. In the specific case of drug patents, health care systems around the Pacific Rim will be adversely affected, especially those of low-income countries. By extending drug patents and thus delaying the release of cheaper, generic brands, the TPP protects Big Pharma’s interests at the expense of citizens of developing countries. These people won’t be able to get the pharmaceutical treatments they require, simply because they can’t afford it. This constitutes a human rights abuse. Even officials in Japan, a country whose health care system was ranked fourth worldwide by Bloomberg in 2014, is concerned that escalating medication prices will threaten their efficient, cost-effective system.
Humans will certainly suffer, health-wise and economically, from the TPP. So will the environment, which inevitably faces large-scale, monoculture farming, increased deforestation and wider pesticide and herbicide use. Exports of American liquefied natural gas would also grow, leading to an increase in fracking and methane emissions, a shift in the domestic energy market from gas to coal, and a corresponding exacerbation of climate change. No, the environment probably wouldn’t appreciate the TPP, either.
Obama’s legacy may end up ringing the death knoll for hard won consumer, worker and human rights–of ALL democratic, personal rights, really–in the imperious face of corporate corpulence. But there’s still negotiating to do, and the deal has come up against great opposition. Final terms will be publicly revealed sixty days before the President signs the agreement, too late to negotiate any changes.
But it’s still not too late. If the TPP does indeed come to pass, then we’ll see its real costs start to pile up fast: the death of public health care, an even worse environment, the loss of workers’ rights, job losses and so much more. Is this what you really want for your future? For your kids’ futures?
All images: Wikileaks
Main image: Wikicommons