The Trans-Pacific Partnership, the world’s largest proposed free trade deal, has certainly taken a lot of criticism from activists who worry about the deal’s potential impact on issues such as internet freedom, intellectual property and factory jobs in developed countries.
But the Obama administration, which has been the major force pushing this deal, is spinning it in a very different way. It’s selling the TPP as the world’s most progressive trade deal, arguing it improves labour and environmental conditions and even promotes the rights of minority groups.
That’s a far cry from the theme often heard on the left that the TPP is essentially a corporate rights giveaway that gives nothing to people. And naturally, progressives are skeptical that a trade deal could actually be progressive.
All the same, here are three-and-a-half things that should make progressives happy, or at least give them a reason to hope, about the TPP. (Keep in mind some of this info is based on leaked draft chapters of the TPP. The full text hasn’t been made public, and may not be public until November.)
1. WORKER PROTECTIONS
The Obama administration says the TPP will include “the strongest labour standards of any trade agreement.” It will require member countries to enforce a ban on child labour, institute a minimum wage (no word yet on if there’s a minimum level for that minimum wage), and enforce a ban on workplace discrimination.
There is even a clause requiring governments to allow workers to form labour unions, which was put in place specifically to force Vietnam to end its ban on unions. Several developing countries also agreed to sign the UN Convention Against Torture as part of the talks.
Under the TPP, countries that violate labour standards would be subject to economic sanctions.
What the critics say:
Critics wonder whether or not these standards will actually be enforced if and when the TPP is ratified. The ability to slap sanctions on violating countries may be there, but will anyone use that power?
They also say the labour standards the U.S. is demanding of its TPP partners are too loose. The TPP requires countries to abide by the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s Declaration on Rights at Work — but not the actual ILO Conventions, which are a set of 190 labour laws developed over the past century.
Finally, many critics doubt that rules against workplace discrimination will be enforceable in some of the more socially conservative TPP member countries.
2. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTIONS
The TPP includes “the strongest environmental protections of any trade agreement in history,” the Obama administration claims, adding that the deal “upgrades NAFTA, putting environmental protections at the core of the agreement.”
The TPP requires member states to enact measures to combat wildlife trafficking and promote conservation of marine species and “iconic” species like rhinos and elephants. It attempts to address deforestation and overfishing through commitments to combat illegal logging and fishing.
What the critics say:
The TPP’s environmental chapter is "a toothless public relations exercise with no enforcement mechanism," Wikleaks publisher Julian Assange said last year.
But his criticism — that TPP’s environmental chapters won’t be enforceable under the same dispute mechanisms as other TPP issues — is based on documents leaked 18 months ago, and the White House says that environmental rules will be subject to the same enforcement as other parts of the deal.
We won’t know for certain until the full text is released, and the question still remains as to whether TPP countries will be willing to enforce environmental rules against their trading partners.
3. ANTI-CORRUPTION MEASURES
The TPP requires member countries to have laws on the books against bribing public officials and to take measures to reduce conflicts of interest. Countries will be required to allow the public to “provide input” on issues included in the TPP, though there is no detail as to what or how much of this “input” governments are required to listen to.
TPP member states will be required to sign the UN Convention Against Corruption, if they haven’t already, and will have to “commit to effectively enforce” anti-corruption laws.
What the critics say:
The central line of criticism is that it’s pretty rich that a trade deal agreed upon in secret, with heavy influence from corporate lobbyists, would push for openness, transparency and a lack of corruption. In other words, the process by which the deal was achieved undermines its claims of corruption-fighting in the eyes of critics.
Doubters also wonder to what extent these measures are enforceable, especially in some developing countries where corruption is often small-scale, occurring at lower levels of business and government.
3 ½: HUMAN RIGHTS
We made this only “half” a reason for progressives to like the TPP, because — despite the Obama administration's claims — protection of human rights is only vaguely a part of the TPP.
One of the criticisms levelled at the TPP is that it means we’ll be opening our markets to some countries that have abysmal human rights records, particularly Brunei, which recently passed a brutal version of Sharia law that allows gay people to be stoned to death, among other things.
The Obama administration says it has been fighting back and using the TPP as leverage to push for greater protections for LGBT individuals and other minorities. But there are no provisions in the TPP that require countries to respect those rights, and one country — Malaysia — has already declared it won’t accept any LGBT rights that contravene Sharia law.
FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH, THIS IS PROGRESS
Still, even a rhetorical link between trade deals and human rights is progress — after all, just a few years back many of these issues were never even brought up (by the negotiating governments) in trade discussions.
If this trend continues, we might one day see the world’s trade deals evolve into comprehensive agreements on the economy, environment, labour laws, human rights and other issues.
But there's no guarantee this trend will continue, and until we have the full text of the TPP in hand, we won't know if the deal really is the first step down the road to a progressive trade deal.