WASHINGTON — Battle lines over the controversial 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership drew sharper this week as hundreds of pages of the text of the final agreement were at long last released Thursday, after years of negotiations carried out behind closed doors.
The coalition of labor, environmental, human rights, Internet freedom groups and other progressive organizations that have rallied opposition against the deal said the text confirms their suspicions that the agreement is geared toward increasing the profits of corporations, without ensuring that benefits extend to workers. They expressed some of their strongest objections to a provision that allows corporations to challenge the laws and regulations of participating countries before an international tribunal if the companies can make a case that the rules interfere with their investors’ profits.
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, a good governance advocacy group, said the final text of the TPP expands the scope of existing dispute-settlement provisions between some trading partners by increasing the number of companies that can challenge regulations and lowering the bar for them to legally mount such claims.
“This is opening up an entire box of Pandoras to expand the scope of the kinds of policies that can be attacked,” Wallach said. “Apparently, the TPP’s proponents resorted to such extreme secrecy during negotiations because the text now shows that the TPP would offshore more American jobs, would lower our wages, would flood us with unsafe food and expose our laws — more laws — to attack in foreign tribunals.”
The pact will cover about 40 percent of the world’s economy, lowering tariffs and setting rules on matters ranging from intellectual property to fishing licenses.
President Barack Obama has aggressively championed the agreement for months, heralding it as “the gold standard” in trade, which has pitted him against many members of his own party and his progressive base.
Upon releasing the text, Obama once again made an appeal for opponents to take a second look, asserting that the agreement will raise labor and environmental standards around the world while eliminating thousands of tariffs, making it easier for U.S. companies and workers to compete in the global marketplace.
“I know that past trade agreements haven’t always lived up to the hype. That’s what makes this trade agreement so different, and so important,” he said in a statement. “I know that if you take a look at what’s actually in the TPP, you will see that this is, in fact, a new type of trade deal that puts American workers first.”
The deal will need majority approval in both the House and the Senate to be officially ratified, and will likely be taken up early next year, ensuring that the debate will become a part of the presidential election. While congressional Republican leaders have expressed their initial approval of the agreement, others in the GOP are reticent to hand President Obama a crowning economic achievement. Meanwhile, the major Democratic presidential candidates have all come out against the deal, including Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner who worked on the pact as Secretary of State.
Democratic candidate Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has been more unabashed in his opposition.
“Now that the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has finally been released, it is even worse than I thought,” he said. “It is clear to me that the proposed agreement is not, nor has it ever been, the gold standard of trade agreements.”
Even as the Obama administration pointed to strong labor standards in the TPP that they say will compel countries like Malaysia and Vietnam to raise wages and crack down on illegal and inhumane practices, labor groups said the document is little more than a set of empty promises. The provisions, they say, compel countries to change their labor laws on paper but do not compel compliance in practice.
“The agreements demand that countries like Vietnam and Malaysia that have trafficking and forced labor problems undertake legal reforms, but there is no obligation to actually show results in fighting forced labor and trafficking,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.
Labor advocates had long urged the administration to withhold trade benefits to countries with problematic labor records until they demonstrated tangible improvements.
Environmental groups also said that the agreement is full of “toothless language” — suggestions that countries improve conservation efforts but little in the manner of enforcement.
“Any praise for the environmental benefits of the TPP should be taken with not just a grain, but with a pound of salt,” said Ilana Solomon, a trade specialist for the Sierra Club. “Any conservation provisions outlined in trade deals are rarely if ever enforced.”
Celeste Drake, a trade and globalization policy specialist at the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation and a harsh critic of the TPP, said with the release of the final text, “We are even more positive than ever that the TPP has a corporate agenda in mind and it is not made to benefit working people. It’s worse than the status quo.”