The International Labour Organisation’s World Labor Report 2000 showed that increasing trade liberalization and the effects of globalization have resulted in job losses and less secure employment in both industrialized and Third World countries. Attacks on social welfare, healthcare and education, as well as privatizations, labour market deregulation, higher unemployment and strongarm tactics against union organizing are rolling back many of the hardwon fruits of struggle for workers around the world, and are being locked in by international free trade and investment agreements.

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In the name of global competitiveness, labour laws are being dismantled. Deindustrialization, as small- and medium-sized producers are crushed by floods of duty-free imports or by transnational rivals setting up shop nearby, has led to massive job losses.

The policies of liberalization and privatization have marched hand in hand with the restructuring of work and especially casualization and flexibility. As public spending is cut, many in the public service sector are laid off. This has led to the erosion of fulltime jobs, the growth of casual and contract labour positions and the intensification of work. Industry strategies of contracting out and outsourcing work, and the casualization have eroded the unionized workforce, along with the resurgence of temporary foreign worker programs in a number of countries. Bosses are able to threaten relocation of the workplace to a location with a cheaper, non-union workforce to bully workers trying to organize.

Such neoliberal policies force people from their farms, jobs, families and communities and into exploitation and precarity as migrant workers in other countries. Deindustrialization and the downsizing and privatization of essential services — accompanied by increasing user fees — are other “push factors”, forcing growing numbers to seeking work abroad. Health and education professionals in shattered public sectors are forced to migrate in search of work. Free trade, its advocates (like the US Administration) promise, will supposedly lead to a reduction of immigration because countries will become more prosperous. Washington proclaimed that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would lead Mexico to export goods, and not people to the US, yet so-called illegal immigration to the US has risen.

Some FTAs include provisions or agreements on labour mobility, such as deals which Japan has signed with Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines which allow for a limited number of nurses and caregivers into Japan on a temporary basis, prompting critics to argue that such deals merely institutionalize the commodification, exploitation and international trade in workers.

In many countries, trade unions and workers are playing important roles in struggles against FTAs. In Korea, for example, many thousands of KCTU members participated in demonstrations against the US-Korea FTA. Workers throughout Central America countries actively opposed CAFTA, such as those from the state power and telecommunications sector in Costa Rica and education workers in Guatemala.

last update: May 2012


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  • 10-Aug-2011 U.S. requests panel to decide Guatemala labor case
    The United States said on Tuesday it was requesting a dispute settlement panel to hear its year-old complaint that Guatemala has failed to protect workers’ rights as required under a free-trade agreement.
  • 17-Jul-2011 ’Free’ trade deals are bad for Mass. cities like Fall River
    Long before 2008, when Wall Street’s unchecked greed brought the world’s economy to its knees, we in the middle class could feel our future slipping away. We knew that we were working longer and harder — we could clearly see that even with two salaries, most families had less disposable income than families did in the ’60s and ’70s when one income was the norm.
  • 6-Jul-2011 ETUC wants FTA with Ottawa to strengthen workers’ rights
    The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has called on Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht to ensure that the free trade agreement currently negotiated with Canada strengthens workers’ rights. In a letter dated 4 July and sent to De Gucht, Bernadette Ségol, ETUC’s general secretary, asked the EU to adjust its negotiating position in order to include in the final agreement a “strong” dispute settlement mechanism, with the possibility of fines being imposed for breaches of international obligations on labour standards.
  • 26-Jun-2011 Bahrain hires US lawyers to fight complaints over sacked workers
    Bahrain has hired a US law firm to tackle a complaint filed by the US’s largest trade union, threatening the kingdom’s bilateral trade agreement with the world’s largest economy.
  • 6-Jun-2011 In These Times South Korea ‘free trade’ deal: Another funnel for exploitation
    While President Obama and most Congressional Democrats are allowing the Republicans to define America’s most urgent crisis as the budget deficit, the nation’s job deficit grows more dire day by day with no clear, forceful direction coming from the White House.
  • 19-May-2011 AFL-CIO US steps up pressure on Guatemala to enforce labor laws
    The Obama administration announced yesterday that because Guatemala has not taken sufficient steps to effectively enforce its labor laws, as required under the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), it is requesting a meeting of the Free Trade Commission.
  • 19-May-2011 In These Times Workforce initiatives put brakes on controversial free trade deals—for now
    Lawmakers and corporations have worked hard these past few weeks to cinch a slew of free trade agreements in Congress, eager to repeat the tried-and-true formula of shifting jobs overseas and undermining working conditions at home and abroad. But just as the ink was starting to dry, something got in the way: workers.
  • 9-Dec-2010 Labor Notes With UAW’s King for cover, Obama backhands labor in Korea trade deal
    UAW sources suggest King felt he had to back the trade deal as payback to Obama for pumping billions into failing automakers in 2009—although the bailout of Chrysler and GM laid off tens of thousands of workers and cut pay—in half—for future auto workers.
  • 18-Aug-2010 Not-so-free trade agreements
    The flavour of protectionism is spreading in the US sometimes at the cost of impeding market access for trade partners. The recent law signed by US President Barack Obama to raise work visa fees will hit Indian companies immediately and US companies with global operations in the medium and long term.
  • 11-Aug-2010 Japan’s Gingerly Caregiver Plan
    With the world’s fastest-aging population, Japan has a growing need for nurses and other caregivers to staff its elderly-care facilities. Asian nations have many well-trained nurses and other caregivers who need jobs. The solution: import more nurses and care workers from Southeast Asia to fill gaping holes in the health care system.
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