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  Issue No 52 Official Organ of LaborNet 05 May 2000  




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Fair Trade not Free Trade

By Dr Patricia Ranald - Principal Policy Officer, Public Interest Advocacy

The successful MAI and Seattle campaigns have sparked a new debate about the role of the World Trade Organization.


The successful campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment and the collapse of the Seattle World Trade Organisation meeting in November 1999 have empowered unions and other community organizations to start a critical public debate on WTO structures and to demand greater accountability by the Australian government for its role in them.

They have formed the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET) which includes the ACTU, several national unions, the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, the Australian Council of Social Service and the Australian Conservation Foundation. AFTINET supplies education materials, regular bulletins and speakers at public events and has been receiving media coverage. It is making submissions to government and conducting policy discussions with the Federal opposition political parties to have an impact on preparations for futher WTO negotiations which are now planned for 2001.

What's wrong with the WTO and Australia's policy towards it?

The shortcomings of the WTO as an international body become obvious when it is compared with the United Nations . The UN was founded after World War Two as a democratic forum to resolve international issues peacefully and establish international legal standards. It has public debates, majority voting, and there are non-government observers. After signing agreements, governments must pass domestic legislation to implement them Thus there is public debate and accountability at the international and national levels. The UN has developed a wealth of international law on human rights the environment and health and safety. Conformity to UN agreements can be tested in international law but there are no international penalties for breaching them.

Australia has had a good past record of ratifying and abiding by UN agreements. However, since 1996, UN bodies have found that some Australian laws are contrary to UN agreements on labour rights and racial discrimination. The Government has ignored the findings and the laws have not been changed. In response to the recent UN findings on race discrimination, government Ministers dismissed the UN decision as an unwarranted interference in Australia's domestic law.

The WTO was founded in 1995- a child of the economic rationalist era. It replaced the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), but was given much wider and stronger powers by its member governments than GATT had.

In the WTO there is no public debate, and no majority voting. Agreements are supposedly reached by consensus, but in reality the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan reach agreements which are then presented to smaller and developing countries. The Seattle meeting of the WTO collapsed not only because of demonstrations outside the meeting but because 70 developing country governments which were excluded from the drafting process refused to be steamrollered into agreeing to negotiations on a new agenda in which they had no effective voice.

The WTO has no formal process for non-government observers. Business groups attend the meetings and are also often included in government delegations. The Australian Seattle delegation included eight business representatives and no unions or other community organisations.

The WTO has teeth. WTO agreements are legally binding whether or not there is domestic legislation-often there is no national public debate before agreements are signed. Governments can complain about other government's regulation on the grounds that it is a barrier to trade. These decisions can be enforced through trade sanctions.

These WTO complaint processes, conducted behind closed doors, have defined US environmental regulation and European food labeling regulation as barriers to trade.

This global regulation favours some corporations, but erodes regulatory standards.

In the last year WTO decisions have resulted in the outlawing of an Australian industry subsidy and the weakening of Australian quarantine laws for the import of fresh salmon. In the latter case, the Australian government moved quickly to change the law without even appealing the decision.

Thus the Australian government refuses labour rights and human rights regulation from the more democratically accountable UN but embraces global economic regulation from a secretive and undemocratic WTO.

What can you do? Join AFTINET

AFTINET argues that international trade institutions should be open and democratically accountable and should not undermine established regulatory standards. WTO structures should be radically reviewed. UN and ILO principles on human rights, labour rights and the environment should not be undermined by trade agreements. Australian trade policy should be publicly debated and democratically accountable.

You can subscribe to AFTINET as an organisation or as an individual by email : mailto:[email protected]


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 52 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: War Stories from the Shakey Isles
After being flat-earthed, New Zealand unions are making a comeback under a new progressive government. Darien Fenton is at the forefront of the resurgence.
*  Unions: Laying It On the Line
A complex international legal web underpins a long-running South Coast picket.
*  International: Alive and Kicking
Those representing right wing political forces and strategists for multi-national corporations would be disappointed by the success of the recently concluded Congress of the WFTU in Delhi.
*  Economics: Fair Trade not Free Trade
The successful MAI and Seattle campaigns have sparked a new debate about the role of the World Trade Organization.
*  History: The Manchester Movement
Manchester, in Asa Briggs memorable phrase, was the shock city of the early nineteenth century, a small and obscure market town that in a matter of a few years had become a huge city.
*  Satire: Passing the Buck
Government report tells bosses how to lie and pass the buck: Reith blames Kemp
*  Review: A Book to Set the Left Right
The Australian Finacial Review's Stephen Long gives his verdict on 'Tales from the new Shop Floor'.

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»  Community Workers Vote to Strike
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»  Call for ACCC Prosecutions Over Japan Coal
»  Sydney Support for Korean Workers and Arrested Officials
»  Maternity Protection Goes Global
»  Ten Years Hard Labor for Shaw
»  Sydney CD's Head For Dili
»  May One - Ground Zero

»  The Soapbox
»  The Locker Room
»  Trades Hall
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  Negotiation - Reith Style
»  Propaganda or News?
»  A Recipe for Modern Unionism
»  Disappointed by May Day Coverage
»  Politics in the Pub

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