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Uniting Food, Farm and Hotel Workers World-Wide


Lessons and Lobsters From Cancun

Posted to the IUF website 21-Oct-2003

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There is a story told about the early days of the French Revolution, in October 1789. Louis XVI, king of France, and his Queen Marie-Antoinette were besieged in the royal castle at Versailles by demonstrators from Paris protesting the rise in the price of bread. The Queen is alleged to have asked her husband what the people wanted. When told that they were hungry and had no bread, she replied: "If they have no bread, let them eat cake."

We will never know if the story is true. In any event, the royal couple lost their heads a few years later when the Republic was proclaimed. That was the end of the Capetian dynasty, but by no means the end of cynicism in high places. Consider, for example, the remarks by EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy at the WTO Cancun summit.

As thousands of peasants and small farmers from Mexico and around the world converged on Cancun to protest the destruction of their livelihoods, Lamy spoke at a banquet dinner at the opening of the summit. The International Herald Tribune reported that "The menu included Mexican lobster caught under strict environmental standards, washed down by equally pure Mexican hibiscus water." Lamy praised the food, saying "This meal proves there is no contradiction in good taste, good care of the environment and growth for the developing world." In other words, let them eat lobster.

The people of Mexico are not dining on lobster. Nor can it be said that lobster, organic or otherwise, has become a growth industry. While trade negotiators vaunt the merits of liberalized trade in agriculture and food, Mexican workers and farmers are hungry. Under the drive for total liberalization of agriculture by 2008, rural Mexico has already lost some 2 million jobs. Subsidized corn from the US, dumped on the market at 30-35 per cent below the cost of production, has devastated local production. Reinforced by NAFTA, this has driven the price down by 75 percent. Villages and entire regions have been emptied as destitute farmers are driven north to seek jobs in the US. In the birthplace of corn, a recent government study confirmed that domestic maize varieties had been massively contaminated by GMO imports from the US, despite Mexico's ban on the planting of genetically engineered varieties. NAFTA is not only on course to wipe out corn farming in Mexico. It has launched a genetic onslaught against the world's most important gene bank for maize.

Deepening rural poverty has depressed living standards as a whole, including those of urban workers. Socially and environmentally sustainable growth - the kind that could lift the people of Mexico out of poverty and offer hope to future generations - remains a distant dream.

The "free trade" attack on Mexican agriculture - under which Mexico eliminated most forms of domestic farm support while WTO-compatible subsidized exports flooded over the border from the US - illustrates the inequalities cemented into the global trade regime under the WTO. NAFTA went further and faster, but the history of global trade negotiations since 1995 has essentially been devoted to tightening WTO regulations along NAFTA lines. The global crisis in agriculture driven by the growing corporate takeover of inputs, trade and marketing and backed by the threat of punitive trade sanctions - has inflicted starvation, misery, and growing inequality, both between and within nations. Where transnational commodity traders and food processors welcome declining prices and new market opportunities, IUF members and million of poor farmers and others dependent on agriculture experience the crisis as a challenge to their very existence.

The history of the WTO is a history of deception and broken promises. The 1995 Marrakech Agreement, which gave birth to the WTO, proclaimed the organization's dedication to sustainable development (Doha was nothing new in that respect). Poor countries were told their concerns over agriculture would be addressed in forthcoming rounds of negotiations. The spectacular collapse at Seattle was followed by pledges of greater democracy and transparency in WTO structures and proceedings. The Doha "Development Round" announced the primacy of public health over the WTO's TRIPS Agreement and seemed to offer affordable drugs for the millions of people with HIV/AIDS in developing countries. Future rounds were to usher in a phased reduction of export subsidies on agricultural products and their eventual elimination. Special and differential treatment to meet the specific needs of poor countries in the world trading system was to be concretized and implemented.

None of these promises have materialized. Instead, the trade negotiations moved in the opposite direction. Investment and public procurement regulations which would give greatly expanded rights to foreign investors while seriously restricting governments' ability to regulate investment in the public interest were inserted into the WTO agenda as part of the 2001 "Singapore issues". Changes to the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) were adopted as "negotiating capital" (the phrase is Lamy's) in the run-up to Cancun. These changes, while important, maintain the system of hidden export subsidies and leave untouched large areas of the CAP which are contributing to the destruction of agriculture in many developing countries. US government support to agribusiness, including export subsidies, was doubled. Just before the Cancun meeting, the US and EU submitted a "compromise" position on agriculture in the negotiations which was entirely lacking in specific commitments and left untouched the most harmful aspects of the WTO's Agreement on Agriculture. Progress on agriculture was then linked directly to acceptance of investment and procurement regulations, despite the fact that nearly half of the WTO member nations had rejected both the draft ministerial text and the nearly identical Second Revision submitted by the WTO secretariat in the course of the Cancun meeting. West African cotton producing countries suffocating under the weight of subsidized US exports were handed a derisory take-it-or-leave it text which failed to meet a single one of their concerns.

At each successive stage, poor countries have been bullied and coerced into signing on to new agreements which renounce the promises offered in earlier negotiations in exchange for vague promises to repair the damage already inflicted. The ongoing wrangling over TRIPS and access to affordable medicine is an excellent case in point. Cancun repeated the familiar pattern. When a group of developing countries finally walked out of the Cancun talks, the only surprise was that it took so long to happen.

The emergence of what at first sight appears to be coherent opposition to the glaring inequalities of the WTO regime crystallizing in the emergence of the G21 group of countries centered around Brazil, South Africa, China and India has been proclaimed as a turning point by governments and NGOs alike. A trade union analysis demands a more careful assessment.

We are opposed to the further expansion of a global trade regime which is undermining democratic and trade union rights while deepening already entrenched global inequalities. For agriculture, the only thing on offer at Cancun was the extension of a trade system which is ravaging the living and working conditions of rural workers and undermining food security. From that standpoint, we welcome the temporary halt in further "progress" towards the corporatization of agriculture, because it gives us a breathing space in which to organize and develop our own strategy. However, a favorable tactical development must not be confused with strategic success. The status quo is unacceptable and the corporate agenda continues to advance, both inside and outside the WTO in the form of bilateral and regional trade and investment agreements which the US and the EU are aggressively pursuing.

It is essential to highlight the limits of the WTO's internal collapse at Cancun, because many of the G21 are effectively seeking greater room to impose their own version of an export-oriented corporate agriculture which is in conflict with the rights of their own food and agricultural workers and further undermines their peoples' right to food security. The issue of "market access", which polarized Cancun, is in many instances a slogan which conceals a vehicle for the enrichment of domestic agricultural elites and the erosion or suppression of the rights of agricultural workers, peasants and small farmers.

We must also reject the claims of the G21 as expressed, for example by the Chinese trade representative at Cancun to represent over 60 percent of the world's rural workers and farmers. None of the G21 can be said to represent workers, and we certainly do not share a common agenda. Our agenda does not coincide with, for example, that of the government of Pakistan, which is currently using its army to enforce the mass eviction of peasants in order to clear the way for the extension of plantations owned by the military and their elite cronies. Our agenda is not shared by the government of China, where rights are systematically suppressed and Party-state bureaucrats have for decades been systematically looting and impoverishing the countryside to fund their investments. The Lula government in Brazil has caved in to pressure from its own big agro-exporters and authorized the limited planting of GMO soya (although the IUF's Brazilian affiliates are vigorously contesting this move, and the issue is by no means settled). The G21 were supported by, and share overlapping membership with, the "Cairns Group" of agricultural exporters whose program is total liberalization of agriculture and an end to all forms of government support. We oppose subsidized dumping, but are in favor of support for agriculture when that support contributes to the rights of rural workers, expands sustainable employment, protects the environment and raises rural living standards.

When the people of Paris protested the rising price of bread in October 1789, feudal privileges in France had already been abolished and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen adopted into law. The way was thus cleared for a democratic republic based on universal suffrage. The emergence of the G21, on the other hand, does not signify a symbolic storming of the Bastille, and we are far from having our rights as workers enshrined in international law over and above the rules of international commerce.

The G21 has already begun to melt, as shown by the group's failure to bring more than a handful of members to a post-Cancun meeting in mid-October. In part this is due to the pressure and blackmail of the Bush administration, which has bluntly threatened to lock recalcitrant countries out of future regional and bilateral trade agreements. It is also, however, due to the conflicting forces and interests within the G21. We can and should give tactical support to poor countries demanding a more just and equitable set of world trade rules. We cannot, however, count on them to do our job for us.

Similarly, we cannot leave unchallenged the North/South framework into which Cancun has been stuffed. The dominance of the big trading powers at the WTO, in the first instance the US and EU followed by their junior partners, is rooted in the dominance of their transnational corporations at home, and the corporate agenda rules at home as well as abroad.

Opponents of the proposed WTO investment regulations have treated them almost exclusively as a vehicle for the domination of poor countries by transnational investors. It is true that, if brought into the WTO, these regulations would further strengthen the "rights" of investors at the expense of developing countries' ability to determine their own development priorities. But the model for these investment codes is NAFTA's Chapter 11, which was deliberately crafted to restrict the right of governments in North America to legislate and regulate investment in the public interest. Chapter 11 has been systematically applied by corporations in Canada and the US to roll back the past gains of the labour, consumer and environmental movements in those two countries and to inhibit future advances. These investment rules represent a universal threat, and workers North and South must jointly combat them or risk weakening labour everywhere.

The crisis in agriculture, as it affects workers and small farmers, is global. A trade union approach must recognize that despite the billions spent on agriculture in the rich countries, the agenda for what the ILO calls "decent work in agriculture" remains blocked and is even regressing. Agricultural workers in Canada and the US remain outside the legal framework for industrial relations. In the US, farmworkers under NAFTA have slid even deeper into poverty. Export subsidies subsidize big agribusiness, not worker rights. Food and agricultural workers in developed countries therefore have a vital interest in joining hands with rural workers around the world to challenge corporate agriculture and put the issue of collective rights at the center of the debate on food, agriculture and trade.

On World Food Day, October 16, the Food and Agriculture Organization appealed for an "international alliance against hunger." This alliance cannot be determined or limited by shifting country coalitions at the WTO. We need allies, to be sure, but it is the task of the international labour movement to constitute the core of this alliance, based on an independent trade union strategy to advance our common struggle, North and South, against the global corporate agenda for food and agriculture. Lobster and hibiscus water won't do it. Our demands are bread and freedom.

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A detailed analysis of the key Cancun issues affecting food and agricultural workers is available on our web site by clicking on "The WTO and the World Food System" in the home page menu on the left. The IUF publication "The WTO and the World Food System: A Trade Union Approach" is available from the secretariat and can be downloaded in pdf format by following the same link.