Inequality is rising, wages are declining, local businesses are dying, and poverty remains; resources are being exhausted and climate change is destroying ecosystems whilst increasing the magnitude of natural disasters. Meanwhile, international trade deals that exasperate all of these problems continue to be agreed behind closed doors. In the name of profit, power and domination, the world’s rich elite continue to ensure our planet’s resources and wealth remain monopolised in their hands whilst presenting us with a glossy façade of global trade deals as essential for our prosperity. It is against this backdrop that voices have been raised in Malaysia, demanding trade agreements incorporate a radical, pro-people, pro-environment ‘people’s charter’.
For decades people around the world have joined together to struggle against neoliberal trade deals between countries. All too often these movements have rightly condemned free trade deals without offering viable alternatives fit for our 21st century, globalised world where we depend on foreign imports daily. This has led to the familiar accusations by advocates of free trade determined to undermine any attempts at resistance of free trade sceptics being ‘unrealistic’ or even ‘dreamers’. A well thought out, feasible yet radical ‘people’s charter’, incorporated into all future trade deals, provides the anti-free trade movement with a standard that all can group around, ensuring that voices and forces neoliberals to stop and listen to our tangible demands.
What must these charters look like and how will they benefit us? The exact details of a charter will vary from trade deal to trade deal, but they must all contain an essential set of rules that ensure protection to workers, domestic firms and the environment. In Malaysia, the Parti Sosialis have recently published a proposal for a people’s charter consisting of nine key conditions all future trade deals must abide by. They should ensure trade deals do not give huge foreign investors the chance to kill off local SMEs. In poorer states, they should prevent trade deals removing tariffs on imported food. Richer countries often provide farmers with subsidies; without trade barriers, these subsidised goods can be exported to lower income countries, undercutting domestic farmers thus damaging livelihoods. African nations in particular suffer when their markets are flooded with cheap goods from rich producers. There is a high risk that free trade agreements between rich and poor countries will further undermine the efforts of local farmers in low income countries. A people’s charter that protects these farmers must be included in currently negotiated deals, for example the EU’s proposed trade deals with countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.
Currently, many free trade deals are negotiated in secret, with the public only made aware of proposed aspects of deals when leaked by NGOs. If they continue negotiated in secret by governments a charter incorporated will not go far enough, and they will be designed with loopholes. Those with power and influence in current negotiations are not altruistic enough to incorporate a radical people’s charter alone. As argued in the Malaysian proposal, a people’s charter should therefore ensure all future trade deals are transparent and allow for the participation of the people and organisations that represent them, as without the voices of the citizens being heard it is impossible to claim a people’s charter is just that. Negotiations must therefore not exclude trade unions, parties across the political spectrum, and civil society organisations.
Let’s not mistake these charters as a war on trade. Trade has been the main driver of economic prosperity in human history. Trade provides access to goods and services otherwise out of reach, and is the reason we don’t need to build our own homes, hunt our own dinner, or brew our own beer. The greatest thing trade offers us is time. Time saved building and hunting can be spent training to be nurse or carpenter, then gives us time to sell these new skills for income. People’s charters are not to be anti-trade. They are to ensure trade is used as to tool to benefit all, and to stand-up for the powerless and stop the powerful from exploiting trade for their own greed, tackling the gross injustice of secretly negotiated international deals that benefit billionaires at the expense of everyone else.
For decades we have been force-fed the rhetoric that free trade deals generate growth, employment, technology transfer, and a more dynamic business environment. Yet many of us know that the drawbacks of large-scale, unrestricted international free trade often outweigh the gains and negatively affect a far wider range of people then free trade’s beneficiaries. Organisations such as the European Union, world leaders and policy makers such as the European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström should cooperate on an international scale with activists and organisations like the Parti Sosialis Malaysia to design a radical people’s charter that ensures the rights of people and planet are put before power and profit.
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