The Australian Council of Trade Unions, backed by the International Trade Union Confederation, has today reiterated its calls for the federal government to cease negotiations over the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The US-led trade deal is being negotiated in secret by 12 countries, and could result in higher medical prices and allow corporations to sue governments for policy designed to protect the public, if it hurts their profits.
Tobacco giant Phillip Morris is already suing the Australian government under the provisions of a 1993 free trade deal known as the ‘Hong Kong Agreement’, and critics say that such lawsuits could extend to environmental, copyright and workplace laws if the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) goes ahead.
“The TPP makes corporate profits more important than protections for clean air, clean water, climate stability and workers’ rights,” ACTU President Ged Kearney said today ahead of a public forum at New South Wales Parliament House.
“TPP talks are being held in secret without unions, business, church, environmental or community groups being involved – this is great for big multinational companies but terrible for ordinary people and the role of governments,” Kearney said.
Unions in all member countries are demanding the deal be scrapped after their calls for greater transparency have been ignored.
“We previously warned that the tabled proposals are unlikely to lead to a more stable, equal and secure global economy based on decent work and asked for a fundamental redirection of the negotiations,” the ACTU and International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) said to Prime Minister Tony Abbott in a letter sent last November.
“The trade union movement has repeatedly advocated for a balanced agreement that serves all of your constituents’ interests, and not simply those of corporations.”
One of the most concerning aspects of the ‘pacific rim’ trade deal, which involves Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States, is the ‘Investor-State Dispute Settlement’ process.
These ISDS processes would see an unaccountable supranational tribunal enable foreign corporations to sue states at the expense of domestic judicial processes.
Documents published by Wikileaks late last month revealed that Australia has put up some resistance to Investor-State Dispute Settlement powers, although the government’s negotiating position is, of course, unclear.
“Notwithstanding any provision of this Agreement, Australia does not consent to the submission of a claim to arbitration under this Section,” footnote 29 of the leaked ISDS chapter said.
However, according to the draft, that footnote can be deleted subject to certain conditions, suggesting the Australian government may simply be manoeuvring to wring extra benefits from the deal.
Those benefits – trade unionists say – are unlikely to be directed at workers.
“The TPP deal does not cover United Nations International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions on fundamental rights at work,” the ACTU noted today.
Adding to these concerns is the fact that French firm Veolia, which also operates in Australia, is currently using an ISDS provision in a different free trade deal to sue the Egyptian government for increasing the minimum wage.
Due to the secrecy surrounding negotiations, it is unclear whether the TPP contains provisions that would provide for such a legal challenge.
“Unions in every country negotiating the TPP are calling for negotiations to be shut down unless there are transparent, public mandates that put community interests ahead of company profits,” Kearney said.
As well as attacks on workers rights, the TPP could put essentials like medicine out of reach of the less well off.
“Stronger patent rights for pharmaceutical companies on medicines will mean delays in availability of cheaper generic drugs and higher medicine prices,” an ACTU spokesperson said.
“This will add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and put vital medicines out of reach in poor countries.”
Recently leaked chapters and public statements from the Trade Minister suggest the government is gunning for some exemptions for medicines, but the union movement says that the public are entitled to know.
“Keeping the negotiating texts and mandates away from public scrutiny is not an acceptable practice for a “21st century agreement” that aspires to set a “gold standard,” the ITUC and ACTU said.
“In order to create balanced and inclusive trade agreements, governments must publish relevant documents that will enable parliaments and civil society to contribute as well as warn against potential dangers from an early stage and certainly well before agreements have been concluded.”
The federal government has defended the deal, which it says will be revealed for public and parliamentary discussions before it is signed, but it’s little consolation for critics wary of the government’s free-market agenda.
Today’s a public forum at NSW Parliament House heard from the likes of international relations expert Dr Patricia Ranald, Médecins Sans Frontières’ Jon Edwards, and Law Professor Kimberlee Weatherall.
Of course, everyone but the government is still largely guessing at what the impacts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership might be.
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