Labour

The combined effect of structural adjustment programmes, increased capital mobility and the globalisation of production has resulted in mass job losses and precarious employment in many countries over the past 30 years. Attacks on social welfare, healthcare and education, as well as privatisations, high unemployment and strong arm tactics against trade union organising, have rolled back many of the hard-won fruits of struggle. In the name of global competitiveness, workers are set against each other in a race to the bottom which only the bosses can win.

International free trade and investment agreements are an important vehicle for the transfer of power from labour to capital. As transnational corporations are granted ever greater rights to trade and invest across the global economy, workers are increasingly cast as commodities in global value chains over which they have no control. The transnational capitalist elites that sit on top of these global networks of production can freely switch suppliers in search of lower labour costs or higher productivity, leaving behind a social devastation from which successive generations are often unable to recover.

The new generation of twenty-first century FTAs are now seeking to intensify this imbalance still further by removing the social standards and market regulations that have traditionally served to limit the power of transnational capital. The elimination of these regulatory ‘barriers’ to trade forms a central pillar of the most recent wave of FTAs, through which transnational corporations will be freed from any restrictions which might have allowed labour to participate in the benefits of trade or investment. Workers will create the wealth, and corporate elites will accumulate it.

One strategy previously advocated by trade unions in the global North was to press for social chapters in FTAs as a means of mitigating the worst effects of market liberalisation. This strategy is now widely recognised as ineffective, since such measures could never compensate for the devastation caused by bringing domestic enterprises into unequal competition with transnational corporations. The record of deindustrialisation and mass unemployment in the wake of trade liberalisations imposed on the peoples of Africa and Latin America shows just how high a price workers have paid for such policies. The negative experiences of US, Canadian and Mexican workers as a result of NAFTA are a reminder that workers in richer countries are also vulnerable.

Trade unions in the global South have long played an important role in mass movements of resistance to free trade and investment agreements. In Korea, many thousands of KCTU members participated in national mobilisations against both the US-Korea and EU-Korea FTAs. Workers in Central America actively opposed CAFTA, such as those from the state power and telecommunications sector in Costa Rica and education workers in Guatemala. Now Northern trade unions are joining these movements of resistance: all major European trade union federations have come out against CETA and TTIP, for example, just as the AFL-CIO called for a halt to the TPP negotiations for fear of the impact on US workers. The global union federation PSI has also spoken out against service liberalisation agreements such as TiSA, which threaten to undermine public services and public sector jobs alike.

Migrant workers’ associations have also formed part of the movement against FTAs. Free trade and investment agreements have resulted in social dislocations that have forced people from their farms, jobs, families and communities into exploitation as migrant workers, either internally within their own states or in other countries. At the same time, the growing number of FTAs that include provisions on temporary labour mobility have been condemned for endangering workers still further, driving people to migrate while still denying them basic rights in countries where their presence is highly precarious and often used by employers to undermine existing labour standards still further. Only when workers are no longer relegated to the status of commodities serving the economic strategies of capitalist elites can there be any hope of their liberation from such exploitation.

Contributed by John Hilary, War on Want

last update: December 2015


    Articles

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  • 21-Sep-2008 NACLA Displaced people: NAFTA’s most important product
    Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, the US Congress has debated and passed several new bilateral trade agreements with Peru, Jordan and Chile, as well as the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Congressional debates over immigration policy have proceeded as though those trade agreements bore no relationship to the waves of displaced people migrating to the United States, looking for work.
  • 9-Aug-2008 Islands Business Viewpoint: Labour mobility deals
    Under pressure to sign on to new free trade agreements, Pacific Islands governments interested in securing positive outcomes for their peoples see deals on labour mobility as potential development gains. But is this the right approach? And what are the potential costs?
  • 19-Jul-2008 AFL-CIO Now blog Tomatoes or children?
    It is gratifying that our government will go to such lengths to stamp out a dangerous bacterium. It is less encouraging to know that the inspectors were not looking at massive labor rights violations, especially the systematic employment of young children in hazardous conditions, which have existed in the tomato industry for decades.
  • 26-Jun-2008 EU multi-level trade policy: neither coherent nor development-friendly
    The EU is demanding far-reaching trade concessions by developing countries which will help to increase their vulnerability. To merely include some paragraphs that all parties will respect and promote human and worker’s rights is just plain insufficient.
  • 23-Jun-2008 CAW Asian women workers’ declaration on free trade agreements
    There is increasing and irrefutable evidence that free trade deals devalue and homogenise cultures, stunt economic development, displace communities and are major drivers of increasing rural and urban poverty. Women are disproportionately affected.
  • 15-Jun-2008 “Free trade”, neoliberal immigration & the globalization of guestworker programs
    An analysis of how free trade and investment agreements affect migrant workers
  • 2-Jun-2008 ITUC Trade unions and bilaterals: Do’s and don’ts - a trade union guide [EN-ES-FR]
    This trade union guide to bilaterals has been produced in an effort to fill an information gap so that trade unions can get more involved in their governments’ negotiation and implementation of bilateral and regional trade agreements
  • 26-Mar-2008 Rebanadas de Realidad Confederación Sindical de Trabajadores las Américas: 700 sindicalistas se reúnen en Panamá
    Según el Plan de Acción consensuado para los trabajadores es imprescindible fortalecer los procesos de integración regional y subregional, con una participación plena de los trabajadores y trabajadoras, como respuesta a los Tratados de Libre Comercio (TLC) que sólo profundizan la brecha entre y dentro de los países empobrecidos y países ricos
  • 11-Dec-2007 Colombia Journal Bush and Harper ignore Colombia’s labor rights reality
    There is no moral justification for the United States and Canada negotiating a free trade agreement with Colombia when the foundation of these pacts is the slaughter of Colombian unionists. The perpetrators of these crimes should not be rewarded with an agreement that most Colombians do not want.
  • 28-Nov-2007 Mingas Letter from Colombian unions to US Congress
    In the framework of the debate in the respective congresses around the ratification of the Free Trade Agreement between Colombia and the United States, the Administration of Alvaro Uribe Vélez has spread the idea in governmental circles in the United States that the Colombian union movement is divided and that "a majority" sector supports the TLC. In this document, we will demonstrate that this idea does not reflect the reality of the Colombian union movement.
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