Trade is quickly dominating the public agenda in Canada.
Trade with the United States and Mexico, trade with Pacific Rim countries, trade with Europe, trade with China, trade in auto and auto parts, trade in dairy, trade in culture, trade in, well, everything, it seems.
Consider that Canada is currently renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement with the US and Mexico. The latest round in those talks opened this week.
As if that weren’t enough, the Canadian government announced last week that it is seeking the public’s input on reviving the currently dead Trans-Pacific Partnership. At the same time, the trade deal with Europe, referred to as CETA, is now partially in effect, and Canada is exploring a trade pact with China.
In short, trade deals seem to be breaking out everywhere, and it is vital the progressive left in Canada remain active and alert to all the threats that free trade agreements may pose.
For too long, free trade deals have been written to serve the needs of corporations and wealthy investors, with fingers crossed that this would trickle down to help working people and their communities.
This has not happened. Instead, with free trade we have continually seen a race to the bottom that has pitted worker against worker. Making it easier and cheaper for firms to move products back and forth across borders hardens the stick corporations wield over its workers. This sort of “free trade discipline” is on full display right now at the Chevy Equinox facility in Ingersoll, Ontario – as General Motors arrogantly announced a ramping up of car production in Mexico in response to our striking members’ call for greater job security. GM will meet North American market demand for Equinoxes simply by exporting them from Mexico instead of Canada, duty free under NAFTA. They can threaten Canadian workers with impunity.
The TPP, on the other hand, was never a good deal for Canada, but Canadians were told we needed to be part of the deal because we couldn’t allow the US to have privileged trade access to the region.
When the US dropped out, the deal seemed to die. Now the federal government seems to have a new plan and is asking whether it should try reviving the TPP with the remaining countries.
In a word, no, we should not revive the TPP. Rather, Canada should focus its efforts on overhauling NAFTA – a chance to reset Canada’s trade priorities and craft a new template for free trade agreements, moving forward.
Unifor and other unions, as well as progressive NGOs, have put forward many bold ideas on how to fix NAFTA and begin to reform the rules of international trade. To their credit, the Trudeau government has staked important ground on social issues. Strong positions taken on labour rights, for instance, are positive steps. There’s a lot rotten with trade agreements, however. As always, we can do better.
I have been fortunate to be part of the team advising the Canadian negotiators at the NAFTA talks. As a labour leader, it is not surprising that I am often asked to comment on labour issues.
All workers, wherever and whoever they are, deserve decent work. Trade deals have held back progress on worker’s rights by giving too much power to big corporations and by establishing meaningless protections. This has to change in a big way.
None of this can be resolved by a special clause here or a chapter there, whether it’s matters of labour rights, gender equity, the environment or indigenous rights. This commitment to make trade work for people instead of corporations needs to be part of the very fibre of modern trade deals.
For too long, trade deals have not really been about trade, but about restricting the role of government to set social policy or influence economic development. Having been close to NAFTA negotiations, I’ve seen just how entrenched this view is. To truly address the shortcomings of our trade deals and address the equity needs of our society that must change.
As Canada steps up its trade agenda, we need all progressive voices, individuals and groups, to speak out and be prepared to stand up. Now is the time to make our voices heard and help ensure any future trade deals help build more equitable communities for all.