Ed Broadbent is the former leader of the federal New Democratic Party and chair of the Broadbent Institute
There is widespread recognition of the fact that right-wing populism is, in good measure, due to the anger of working-class families in advanced democracies. Once the well-paid bastion of support for democracy in the North Atlantic region, millions of workers in the United States, Britain and France have shifted their allegiance to leaders and parties that are authoritarian, racist and abusive of human rights. In doing so, they have accurately perceived that international trade agreements in recent decades have been remarkably successful in protecting the rights of capital and enriched the top one per cent. Feeling they have become "strangers in their own land," they have withdrawn support from the mainstream parties that created these unbalanced, inequality-producing regional and global agreements.
The coming renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement and the possibility of a trade and investment deal with China should not be occasions to replicate past errors. Rather, they should be used as an opportunity to address this serious democratic deficit. While job losses and the shift of income from wages to profits have been in part due to technological change, the latest report of the International Monetary Fund's World Economic Outlook notes that global competition has also produced a drop in the share of labour income in middle-class jobs in advanced economies as well as a drop in the workers' share of income within developing countries. Together with the decline of unions, such competition has contributed to the marked rise in inequality within most countries around the world.
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While neither China nor Mexico nor any developing country should be obliged by other countries to raise wages, they should be obligated to respect basic human rights. In the context of trade agreements, this would include the right to an independent union and the right to bargain collectively. These rights have been entrenched in international human-rights conventions and are part of international law.
However, these rights are manifestly not respected in either Mexico or China, which suppress truly independent labour organizations. This has been well documented by international human-rights and labour associations. Indeed, when China ratified the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, it announced it would not honour Article 8, thus enabling its denial of workers' rights. The repression of these basic rights not only leads to exploitation of their own workers, it also gives China and Mexico an artificial advantage in trade over and above their legitimate advantage as relatively low-wage countries. After more than 20 years in NAFTA, Mexican wages in manufacturing still average just $2 (U.S.) an hour. An advantage in trade should never be obtained by the denial of rights.
In renegotiating NAFTA and pursuing trade talks with China, Canada should avoid, not repeat, the errors of past trade agreements. Why should agreements provide effective enforcement mechanisms to protect the property rights of corporations but deny the human rights of workers? Why should we protect the one per cent at the expense of the majority?
An EKOS poll recently published by The Globe revealed that Canadians are not immune to the causes that have produced a politics of resentment elsewhere. Since 2000, there has been a precipitous drop from 67 per cent to 46 per cent of Canadians who regard themselves as middle class and 70 per cent believe (accurately) that almost all recent economic growth has gone to the top one per cent. It's the perception of this unfairness that has been undermining democracy in Europe and the United States.
One part of a response to growing inequality is to change the rules of the game in international trade. The Liberal government has suggested it wants such change. It claims to believe in "progressive trade." However, in the recent negotiations with Europe, the government signed on to a pact, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, that pays only lip service to labour rights.
Enough is enough. What the world desperately needs is a system of global rules fair to both capital and labour. Such a system would require all World Trade Organization members to respect and ratify basic labour rights, notably the right to independent unions as defined by the International Labour Organization. Such a system would also entail an enforcement mechanism with sanctions such as those which now exist to protect corporations' rights.
"Progressive" trade deals with such rights should begin with a renegotiated NAFTA and be entrenched in whatever trade agreement may be reached with China. Otherwise, Canadians should not be surprised with a further rise in the level of disenchantment, both at home and abroad.