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Free Trade Agreements and its discontents: What is at stake for the people?

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (Photo:

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (Photo:

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was signed just a few days ago, and most people are confused as to how they would react – probably because all new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) including the TPP are being negotiated in secret. Except for a few leaked sections of the agreement, no public document has ever been released….But what exactly are they hiding away from public scrutiny?

Governments and corporations are eagerly promoting the new free trade agreements with promises of jobs, greater wealth and economic prosperity event as they treat the entire process as closely guarded secrets. But these were the same promises that advocates of CUFTA, CAFTA, and NAFTA made when they were trying to sell these agreements to the public. Incidentally, the new FTAs heavily borrow languages and terms from their predecessors, earning them the moniker of “NAFTA on steroids.”

The concrete experiences of the world’s poor and working people show that the new FTAs will not only deepen and intensify poverty, dispossession, and inequality but will also rollback the hard won progressive gains (or whatever is left of them) of the working class and the democratic majority during the last century.

Attacks on Agriculture

The agriculture sector of developing countries is usually the most devastated by FTAs. A significant number of the population is involved either in subsistence or commercial agriculture. Without the necessary protection against the deluge of cheap and subsidised agricultural imports, imports from developed countries can easily undercut domestic prices, putting many farmers from southern countries out of business. In NAFTA, subsidized agricultural imports from the United States cost Mexico one million jobs between 1991 and 2000 and an additional one million in agriculture sector as a whole (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organisations, 2014).


Agricultural liberalisation has caused many developing countries to lose their food sovereignty. FTAs have drastically transformed developing economies that were once major food producers into net importers of food from rich industrialized nations. Indonesia and the Philippines, for example, were top exporters of rice before. The drive for self-sufficiency of these countries in the past was intended as a safeguard against their fast-growing populations and the fluctuating prices of their commodities in the world market. With the shift towards production for lower-value food grains for domestic consumption to cash crops, however, these countries have now become top importers of rice.

Attacks on Workers’ and Migrants’ rights

TPP, TTIP and TiSA are being sold by governments as the harbinger of prosperity, decent jobs and wages. But if the more than twenty years of past FTAs are instructive, then the prospects for millions of workers would be bleak. The new FTAs will attack workers’ job security, wages and benefits, occupational safety and weaken workers’ rights in general. It will also encourage migration of workers and promote discrimination against migrants and women workers.


With the aggressive push of new FTAs to control governments’ power to regulate, labor will be made to adopt to production flows as corporations deem it necessary even if it runs contrary to established labor standards. This process is called labor flexibilization, a scheme by which firms no longer commit to providing employees lifetime job security and instead seek flexible employment relations that permit them to increase or diminish their workforce and reassign employees with ease (Stone, 2006).

Attacks against women

The new FTAs pose new threats to women and are expected to reinforce patriarchy and accelerate the impoverishment of women through more sophisticated and subtle forms of exclusion.

With the establishment of international free trade policies, transnational corporations can take advantage of the large reserve army of feminine labor. Moving from the rural to urban areas or from poor countries to wealthier ones, women will be forced to seek work as either documented or undocumented migrant workers to perform production demands at any price. In developing nations, women have been found by big transnational corporations to be a cost-effective source of labor. The case of the maquiladora workers in Mexico or the women workers in many sweatshop factories in South East Asia demonstrates this point clearly.

Attacks agains the environment

According to scientific studies, in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, 80 percent of the world’s fossil fuels need to remain in the ground. This is obviously counter to the interest of the fossil fuel companies. In the new free trade agreements, corporations will be empowered to sue governments for interfering with their business — whether it be due to the enactment of carbon reduction goals or adopting environmental legislation.


The larger goal of the deregulation of environmental policies is to provide large extractive industries unbridled access to natural resources of peoples in the Global South. This will further deprive them the right to use their own natural resources for economic development and render their communities to environmental catastrophes.

Not at the negotiating table? then you’re probably on the menu


For few developing countries involved, these new free trade agreements would mean the further deepening and intensification of the exploitative relations between the global North and South and the widening of inequality between the two.

Today, new free trade deals are being fashioned that will position the world’s superpowers and their transnational corporations at the center of their own strategically drawn up domains, traversing both sides of the pacific to Eastern Europe. But far from being a means to open up the world to the further intensification of trade and to free capitalism from its own fetters, these deals, orchestrated primarily by US imperialism, will only lead to the concentration of resources, wealth, and power into the hands of the narrow global elite.

Primer on 21st Century FTAs coverParts of the article were lifted from IBON International‘s Primer on 21st Century Free Trade Agreements: Trading away our future for corporate plunder and profit published July 2015. Download the digital copy for free here.


One thought on “Free Trade Agreements and its discontents: What is at stake for the people?

  1. Pingback: TPP: Trading People for Profit | International Festival for Peoples Rights and Struggles (IFPRS 2015)

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