View Point
Friday, December 10, 1999

By Thaddeus Tomei

We need fair trade,
not free trade

The front pages have been filled with stories of the demonstrators at the World Trade Organization's meeting in Seattle.

While it is predictable that the press would focus on the actions of a few who engaged in violence, it should also point out why tens of thousands of people were peaceably demonstrating.

What was happening in Seattle was a demand to end an era of trade accords negotiated behind closed doors, and to call for a new era, one in which working families can participate in trade decisions that affect our lives.

Editorials posed a choice between free trade and protectionism, between engaging China and isolating it, between embracing the global market and turning our backs on it.

Opponents were dismissed as part of the past and as obstacles to the prosperous future of the new economy.

This is nonsense. The debate isn't about free trade or protection, engagement or isolation. We all know we're part of the global economy. We see it everyday in Hawaii.

The real debate is over the rules for that economy and who makes them, the terms of engagement, and whose values are to be represented.

It is not about free trade. It is about fair trade.

Currently, global corporations have defined the global market and dominate it. They enlisted governments to slash regulations, free up capital, open up markets and guarantee investments. They made the rules; they cut the deals.

It is not fair to have a global economy that does not work to the benefit of working people. The 200 richest people in the world have a combined income greater than two billion of our poorest brothers and sisters. The World Bank reports that 200 million more people live in abject poverty today than in 1987.

Many countries have little choice but to compete by lowering their own standards, establishing export processing zones, outlawing worker organizing, waiving environmental laws, ignoring food safety and public health regulations, and slashing social spending.

The WTO, founded five years ago, is the capstone of the corporate-dominated world marketplace. It oversees and enforces the rules of the global economy, arbitrates trade conflicts and claims the authority to challenge state and national laws that conflict with rules that protect corporate interests, not people.

When it comes to making the global economy work for working people, we must demand that it be done fairly:

Bullet Incorporating enforceable workers' rights, human rights and environmental protections in every U.S. trade and investment agreement is the fair way; admitting a repressive China into the WTO is not.

Bullet Prohibiting the import of goods manufactured by children is the fair way; excluding the voices of working families from the WTO is not.

Every worker deserves protection of his or her basic human rights -- prohibitions against child labor, slave labor, discrimination and the freedom to join together with others in a union.

If the WTO will not enforce workers' rights and environmental protections, then national and local governments must act to do so.

Let the WTO explain to citizens why they cannot choose to boycott companies producing goods with child labor in Honduras, or slave labor in Burma, or workers who are locked up when they try to organize a union in China.

We did it before when we divested pension funds from companies doing business in South Africa. Some said then that we had no business meddling with foreign affairs.

We said then and we say now the words of Martin Luther King Jr., "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

By pushing for fair trade and not free trade, we ensure a global economy that is mutually beneficial for all.

Thaddeus Tomei is president of the Hawaii State AFL-CIO.

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