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South Korea’s Boom Leaves Workers in the Dust

10:36 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Hyundai worker rally (via links.org.au)

Originally posted at In These Times

South Korea is sometimes touted as an exemplar of capitalist progress in Asia–a sophisticated economy with global brands and an educated populace (not to mention a stunning contrast to its miserable Communist analog to the north). But the lives of South Korean workers tell a different story. In recent months, they’ve been slammed by a much-maligned free trade deal, tussled with Hyundai in a bitter strike, and, according to an international assessment, become examples of how an economic boom can be a bust for labor.

According to a report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), published as part of the World Trade Organization’s periodic Trade Policy Review, Korean workers have faced major challenges in organizing independent unions, and women, migrants, and other marginal workers face widespread discrimination and exploitation.

Though unionization is generally legal, in practice, labor activities are regularly suppressed by employers, and independent organizing may be preempted by “management-controlled” or “paper” unions. Restrictions on public-sector union activities–in the name of protecting the public–parallel the limits on labor activism imposed on U.S. civil servants, according to the report:

[T]here are numerous categories of public officials who are still denied their trade union rights, including managers, human resources personnel, personnel dealing with trade unions or industrial relations, and special public servants such as military, police, fire-fighters, politically-appointed officials, and high level public officials. … The law also prohibits public sector unionists from engaging in “acts in contravention of their duties prescribed in other laws and regulations when doing union activities”. This very broadly worded provision leaves the door open for abuses. Read the rest of this entry →

Backdoor Talks on Trans-Pacific Trade Deal Aim to Globalize Corporatocracy

4:28 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times

You might think corporate money corrupts our political system, but the international trade system is where money really talks.

Image via interoccupy.org

The White House is touting the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a “21st century” trade deal, but many activists see it as a regression into economic imperialism. The pact currently in negotiations—covering Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam, with Canada and Mexico recently joining the talks—aims to establish a new trade regime that could intrude on domestic laws that affect millions of workers and consumers, from their weekly paycheck to their prescription medicines.

Thanks to some intrepid activists with Public Citizen and the Citizens Trade Campaign, the public can glimpse at the closed-door negotiations through a batch of leaked documents. So far, what’s trickled out suggests that Washington is determined to scale up the controversial framework of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), creating a new trade regime that exploits inequality between workers and employers within countries, and global inequalities between the “developed” and “developing” worlds.

The TPP, if current proposals are enacted, would grant extreme powers for corporations to act as quasi-legal entities, and potentially to take states to court in order to dismantle environmental, consumer safety, or labor protections that they feel “unfairly” pinch their profit margins. Building on previous trade agreements like NAFTA that have given foreign investors sweeping powers to circumvent domestic regulations, the proposed framework would establish a litigation system designed to protect the “rights” of investors above citizens. Read the rest of this entry →

Labor Action and Inaction in Colombia Free Trade Deal

11:02 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In these Times

Rally for human rights in Colombia (image: mar is sea Y via flickr/Creative Commons)

As the media swarmed over the scandal surrounding the Secret Service’s alleged carousing with prostitutes in Colombia, another questionable financial transaction slipped quietly through the backdoor of hemispheric diplomacy.

While officials convened at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena earlier this month, the White House put the finishing touches on another free trade agreement, aimed at liberalizing markets in Colombia and the U.S. The deal has faced vocal resistance from labor and human rights groups in both countries, who argue that the agreement would effectively condone violence against activists and economic oppression. But for the governments looking to build economic ties, the fears raised by civil society groups were just background noise. The Obama administration tried to put the lid on the opposition by tacking on labor policies to address anti-labor violence and other abuses.

Now officials have tacked onto the deal a Labor Action Plan, which, at least on paper, promotes fairer labor practices and stronger protections for workers and unions. The White House has certified Colombia’s compliance with the plan—a condition of sealing the trade agreement, which is set to go into effect in May. Human rights and labor activists are not impressed, pointing to dozens of recent murders of trade unionists and other union-busting actions, along with ingrained weaknesses in Colombia’s political system that foster corporate and government impunity. Read the rest of this entry →

Trans-Pacific Trade Deal Opens Eastern Front for Neoliberalism

8:49 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: Citizens Trade Campaign

Cross-posted from In These Times.

With the U.S. economy stuck in a constant rut and Europe going into a tailspin, President Obama is looking to escape to the East. While the nations of the Asian Pacific rim face strains of their own, from massive inequality to climate change, their growth rates look positively zen compared to the stagnant economies that used to run the world.

So for the past several days President Obama has been charming Asia-Pacific officialdom, hoping these “emerging” economies can prop up the West’s sagging empires. At home, the White House has sold its vision for the “Pacific Century” as a boon for U.S. jobs, and abroad, he’s looking to consolidate influence over Asian leaders with subtle overtures toward checking China’s regional power.

The centerpiece of this program is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that would involve Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, in addition to the U.S. While it would build on existing trade ties in the region, critics see it as an unprecedented supersized neoliberal agenda repackaged with the bow of modernization and “development.”

But according to fair trade activists, the deal may end up not only failing to bring significant job opportunities, but laying the groundwork for an economic regime built on offshoring, deregulation and the swapping of national sovereignty for corporatocracy. Read the rest of this entry →

It’s NAFTA x3 as Free Trade Deals Sweep Through Congress

1:38 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from Colorlines.com

One day in September, Isidro Rivera Barrera, a contract worker and labor organizer who was campaigning at an Ecopetrol refining facility in Barrancabermeja, Colombia, was reportedly gunned down outside his home. His death was met with the usual silence—just business as usual in a country with one of the world’s worst human rights records for attacks on trade unionists. But now, the hushed suffering of Colombian workers reverberates in the U.S. Capitol, which has just passed a deal to bring even more business-as-usual to Colombia.

Congress last week approved three long-pending trade deals with Panama, South Korea and Colombia. The rationale behind each of them is dubious; there’s little evidence that the agreements will lift up the U.S. economy and plenty that they could lead to massive job loss in key sectors. But free trade deals have always been less about creating jobs than exporting neoliberal ideology to the Global South, thereby accelerating poor nations’ cascade toward low labor standards, environmental exploitation and deregulation. Read the rest of this entry →

Labor Day Showdown: Can Advocates Stop ‘NAFTA of the Pacific’?

4:27 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from Colorlines.com

This Labor Day, the Pacific Rim will wash into the Midwest’s flagship city, and activists will confront the tides of global commerce with a demand for global economic justice.

At trade talks in Chicago, the Obama administration will work with other officials to develop a trade agreement that will incorporate Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Peru. Labor, environmental and human rights groups will gather in the city to warn that the structure, and guiding ideology, of the emerging trade deal could expand a model of free-marketeering that has displaced masses of workers across the globe and granted multinationals unprecedented powers to flout national and international laws.

The provisions of the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement or Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are still under wraps. But the general outline seems to mimic the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and similar pacts that have brought political and economic turmoil to rich and poor countries alike. The new negotiations are also taking place amid political friction over pending trade deals with South Korea and Colombia, which have run into opposition over concerns about labor abuses abroad and offshoring of U.S. jobs. Yet the White House continues to push free trade as a path toward the country’s economic revitalization.

So on Monday, activists with Stand Up! Chicago and other groups hope to get ahead of political deal-making by demanding that any new trade deal give greater priority to environmental, labor, and health concerns. The ongoing trade talks offer a tiny opening for advocates to put forward ideas for making trade less hostile to ordinary people. In a way, they’re taking the Obama administration on its own word, because the TPP has been billed as a “21st century” trade pact that will presumably improve on previous trade agreements.

Read the rest of this entry →

Embattled Colombian Unionists Rally Against ‘Free Trade’

9:31 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(photo via L.A. Progressive)

Cross-posted from In these Times

Gathering with fellow unionists in Washington, D.C., Jose Hugo Yanini speaks firmly about labor rights in Colombia. But a few weeks ago, the industrial janitor and shop steward feared that he soon might never utter another word.

Yanini, who is campaigning with SEIU and other groups against the pending U.S.-Colombia trade agreement, is a typical target in his home country. Last month, on his way home from collective bargaining talks, labor activists report, he got the anonymous phone message that every Colombian union activist dreads: “Tell that man that he should be careful with his tongue or we will cut it out.”

So far, the case hasn’t been fully investigated and the public doesn’t know who was behind the menacing call. But people do know Yanini’s boss: the multinational company Sodexo, a major provider of food and custodial services in the U.S. and other countries, and a notorious union-buster at home and abroad.

What brought Yanini and other Colombian unionists to Washington is a simple demand that the U.S. simply not continue to do business with a country where speaking out for labor rights can be a death sentence.

The Colombia Free Trade Agreement has been pending for years in Congress along with other trade deals, stalled by political stalemate as well as intense opposition by unions and human rights advocates. It would strip away tariffs and, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, subject both countries to a series of byzantine bilateral trade rules ostensibly designed to maximize profit. In reality, as with NAFTA, the deal is designed to maximize exploitation and minimize corporate and government accountability.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration touted the Labor Action Plan, a joint agreement to enhance labor laws and regulatory mechanisms. Though the plan contains provisions that look good on paper—such as legal reforms to bar certain labor abuses and anti-union activities—advocates fear that it’s just window dressing for a deal designed to enrich the companies that keep workers impoverished and silenced.

According to U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (US LEAP), the LAP does meet some of the demands of labor unions by promising stonger enforcement of labor law and preventing employers from undermining organized labor by exploiting contract and cooperative systems. But in an April statement, the group concluded:

(1) does not require an actual reduction in violence against trade unionists or advances on impunity, (2) is limited only to labor issues and does not address a wide range of other concerns, including human rights violations, militarization, impact on agriculture, internal displacement and the rights of Afro-Colombians, and (3) provides no way to ensure compliance once the Colombia FTA is implemented. Consequently, prominent labor and human rights groups have joined leading Colombian trade union organizations in denouncing the agreement as woefully inadequate as a sufficient condition for approval of the FTA.

Colombian activists came to D.C. to give a ground-level perspective of the gap between the LAP’s official language and the reality that workers face everyday.

Carlos Olaya, director of research with the union SINALTRAINAL, is skeptical that the labor accord would alleviate obstacles to effective labor organizing.

Even organized workers have “no real access to collective bargaining rights,” he said, recalling that in his union, negotiations with various companies fell apart and left workers “stuck in limbo.” The fundamental limitation of the LAP, he said, is that:

it’s not changing the business culture, which is one of indirect contracting and not hiring workers in a way that allows them to access their rights. And there’s an ongoing anti-union culture…. it does not address those kinds of root problems, and so workers are continuing to lack access to their labor and human rights.

Beyond labor issues, Colombia suffers from a whole range of crises: a monstrous drug war, ongoing factional conflicts, and deep marginalization of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. All of these problems are interlocked in a climate of impunity and corruption, which is symbolized by Colombia’s distinction as labor murder capital of the world.

In 2010 alone, according to US LEAP, 51 trade unionists were murdered—a considerable increase since 2007, when the Colombian Congress initially approved the pact. Between 2006 and 2010, a staggering 239 trade unionists were killed in Colombia, compared with 265 unionists killed in all other countries combined. The vast majority of cases documented over a quarter century have not resulted in convictions. In light of the vast inequities plaguing the Western hemisphere, perhaps it’s not so ironic that the country’s chaos and oppression has paralleled relatively solid economic growth and plenty of aid from the U.S.

The standard Washington prescription for this social malaise would be more unfettered foreign trade in the name of economic uplift and social stability. But Yanini, whose outspokenness may have nearly cost him a body part, has a different take.

“I work at Sodexo. Sodexo is a very large multinational company that has very high earnings every year. And yet we as workers there have not benefited from anything because they have not wanted to give us any benefits,” he said, adding that the company refused to accommodate health problems, including tendonitis, that limited his ability to work. “They fired seven of my colleagues that wanted to join our union,” he recalled, “just because they wanted to join a union.”

Repudiating the all-boats-rise rhetoric, he said, “that’s a good example of how even large companies that have lots of money are not sharing that wealth with us as workers.”

Though the Labor Action Plan seems to reflect essential labor rights principles, it’s embedded in a trade liberalization regime that undermines human rights and democracy. So the activists who oppose the Colombia FTA won’t be satisfied with labor provisions that focus only on the workplace, without addressing other potential consequences for civil society, for agriculture communities and marginalized groups. By design, that kind of U.S.-Colombia trade “partnership” would simply reward injustice with foreign investment.

“The key issue here,” Olaya said, “is that there’s a large imbalance in that relationship between the US and Colombia. In many ways, both with the FTA and otherwise, the U.S. has a lot of power to impose itself in Colombia.”

For the unionists struggling for survival, an imbalanced trade deal would further compound the power imbalance in Colombia’s labor system, where the price a worker pays for raising his voice is meted out in blood.