Secret Pacific Rim trade deal on track to completion

A NAFTA-style trade agreement with 11 Pacific Rim nations is en route to completion. Talks on the agreement known as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) were initiated by President George W. Bush in 2008 and have progressed, largely in secret, under the Obama administration.

At the end of a May 15-24 session in Peru, trade negotiators said they expect the treaty to be concluded in October. The next meeting will take place  July 15-25 in Malaysia, with a final meeting slated for September somewhere in North America.

The participating countries are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam. About half the countries already have trade agreements with the United States.

Some of the countries are advanced industrial democracies with high wages and established workers rights protections. Others, like Vietnam and Brunei, are low-wage platforms where workers lack independent unions. Lowering barriers to trade and investment in such cases can lead to a race to the bottom.

“Broadly speaking, it’s a corporate power grab,” said Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of the Citizens Trade Campaign — a national coalition of labor, environmental, consumer, family farm, religious, and other civil society groups.

Stamoulis said the United States has made some effort to include enforceable workers rights standards in the agreement. But workers rights haven’t been a priority for U.S. negotiators on par with “investor rights” and “intellectual property rights.”

Trade negotiators haven’t released details of the agreement to the public. Nor are the U.S. negotiating positions being released, though as many as 600 corporate lobbyists and other stakeholders have access to them. One of those stakeholders is the national AFL-CIO. AFL-CIO trade policy expert Thea Lee says she knows what the U.S. is proposing, but isn’t allowed to divulge it.

But what has been made public about the negotiations so far is grounds for deep concern, the AFL-CIO executive council declared in February, because it relies on NAFTA as a template.

“The NAFTA-based model promotes a race to the bottom in workers’ rights, wages, pensions and working conditions; resource conservation; food safety; and consumer protections,” said the executive council in an official statement. “It actively undercuts the public policies that helped bring about the rise of the middle class in the first place. … The United States cannot afford another trade agreement that hollows out our industrial base and adds to our substantial trade deficit.”

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