Article by Walt Andrews, written for and originally published by the St. Andrews Foreign Affairs Review.
“For big corporations, trade agreement time is like Christmas morning,” according to US Senator Elizabeth Warren. She was discussing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and unfortunately she’s entirely right. The TPP is a free trade agreement (FTA) which includes several Pacific nations, and which many more are attempting to join. It has the potential to unite the Pacific by reducing trade barriers, thereby improving trade for both consumers and businesses. However, the Obama administration has gotten its priorities wrong, and is listening to the wrong advice in crafting its negotiations. Instead of truly increasing competition and lowering trade barriers, the TPP is being structured to the advantage of corporations and the detriment of consumers and workers, perpetuating dangerous labour standards and bad intellectual property law.
The TPP is one of the largest regional free trade agreements to date, and will make drastic changes to the laws and behaviour of all of its member nations. Because it has been negotiated in secret, this article will attempt to read the tea leaves of the negotiation process. In part, this means examining the ongoing leaks, primarily concerning copyright, which have revealed concerns about the treaty.  In other places this article will call for specific provisions that ought to be included in the treaty. Largely due to who is negotiating the treaty for the US, its priorities have been on protecting businesses, not consumers or workers.
It’s not that FTAs are inherently bad. Unrestricted trade between countries helps everyone; increasing profits, providing consumers with cheaper products, and it can be instrumental in bringing foreign investment to developing countries. Protectionism can have an important role in defending specific industries, but all too often is harmful to competition and consumers. Subsidies to specific national industries hurt those industries in other countries, preventing them from developing and raising prices for everyone. Furthermore, standardisation of economic and trade practices makes trade more efficient and beneficial. FTAs even offer greater scrutiny of international labour practices, which can be leveraged to improve working conditions globally. The TPP is an economically sound concept that has been corrupted by money and the politics of the moment.
The problem is that the interest groups considered in the Obama administrations policies are skewed. As Cole Stangler of In These Times notes, 600 of the US’s 700 official trade advisors represent business, while around 20 are from organized labour.  Corporations have the right to have their interests represented, but when they overpower other concerns, it ends in poor treatment of workers and bad economics. Without stringent labour regulations included in the treaty, it will allow corporations to outsource work to places with weak labour rights and unsafe working conditions. Moving jobs overseas is inevitable, but should only be done when these jobs can take labour and safety protections with them.
Good labour practices aren’t just about preventing wage slavery. The United States has an obligation to ensure that the manufacturers of foreign goods protect the right of their employees to unionise. Union organizers have been killed in Bangladesh, one of the many countries that have expressed interest in joining the TPP. This lack of unionisation has harmful effects on safety regulation as well. Unions in the United States spent decades fighting for safety regulations. Many countries in the developing world do not have these standards, leading to unsafe work environments involving chemicals, machines, long hours, or even the structural integrity of the buildings they work in. These conditions wouldn’t be acceptable for American workers, and they shouldn’t be acceptable anywhere in the Pacific. When the US enters trade negotiations, it should focus on exporting these regulations abroad.
When the US has opted to export stringent regulations, they have been the things that are politically expedient to protect. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed in the US to update copyright law for the 21st century, has been widely criticised as excessively harsh and not having a good understanding of the technology and use of art in the 21st century. Thanks to heavy lobbying from the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, US copyright laws were locked into a model that is restrictive, offers excessively long terms of copyright, and harms fair use of things like the image at the top of this article. These laws can have a chilling effect on free speech, cultural expression, and ultimately the health of people across the world.
US intellectual property law presents another problem with its treatment of pharmaceutical drugs. The US has extensive patent protections on drugs, supposedly to protect innovation, but when this allows pharmaceutical companies to sell their products at exorbitantly high prices, it means people in the developing world don’t have access to the medicine they may need to survive. In TPP negotiations, the US should work to find compromise measures that can preserve corporate innovation with accessible pricing.
The Obama administration should take the opportunity of the TPP to fight back against a bad political process, and improve the lives of people around the world. The TPP should be used to lower trade barriers between nations, export labour and safety standards, and start work on a copyright system that works for consumers as well as corporations. To do this, the United States should drop bad policies, like excessively strict intellectual property law and farm subsidies, in exchange for good ones. Sadly, until the Obama administration decides to stop giving presents to corporations, that’s not likely to happen.
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