Sunday, September 16, 2007

Trade Agreement in the Final Stretch

After many doubts and delays, there's now a better-than-even chance that Peru's free trade agreement with the United States will be ratified in the near future. According to statements made by US officials to the Peruvian media, the House Ways and Means Committee is set to hold a hearing on the 25 September, after which the agreement would be voted on sometime in October.

Of the four trade deals negotiated by the US government before President Bush's 'fast track' authority expired in June, Peru's will be the first to go to a vote, and the most likely to be approved (the others are with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea). But with some Democrats still unconvinced about the Peruvian government's commitments to enforcing labour standards, there may be yet be stumbles as the agreement goes through Congress.

When I last posted on the topic, Republicans and Democrat leaders had stuck a deal to allow the Peru and Panama agreements to be considered if their labour and environmental conditions were strengthened. Amendments were drafted, and swiftly accepted by Peru's congress. A deputation of US representatives was to visit Lima to offer 'technical assistance' to ensure that Peruvian labour and environmental standards were on the road to acceptability.

That visit in August -- where Democrat Charles Rangel met with president Alan Garcia, representatives of all political parties, and labour unions -- produced warm words and grand statements. Garcia said that the agreement could be the start of a 'new New Deal' in international commerce. Rangel opined that it could be a 'flagship' agreement, noting that 'for the first time, workers' rights will be a part of trade agreements -- to be enforced'.

But not everyone was convinced about the Peruvian commitment to improving labour standards. On the campaign trail in 2006, Garcia had promised the elimination of 'services', companies that provide outsourced labour to other businesses. But a year later Garcia had changed his tune, proposing that such companies merely be regulated rather than eliminated. In August the government announced a law would be prepared with the aim of reducing the number of employees contracted through 'services' from 20% to 10% of the workforce.

According to American magazine Inside US Trade, some Democrats are also unimpressed that their concerns about outsourcing and union rights are being addressed through a series of governmental Surpreme Decrees -- which can be modified later -- rather than through the unfinished General Labour Law. The latter is currently stalled after being negotiated over the last five years. The two largest Peruvian labor federations, CGTP and CUT, have sent an open letter to congressional Democrats asking them to vote 'no' to the trade agreement.

Nevertheless, a hearing of the Senate Finance committee on September 11 on the Peru deal met with few objections. The American labour federation AFL-CIO is agnostic about the deal and has decided to neither promote or actively oppose it, but to concentrate their efforts on opposing the Colombia and South Korea agreements. AFL-CIO policy director Thea Lee said that the new labour and environmental conditions "represent significant progress in crucial areas we have fought to achieve for many years".

Political analysts say that 60 to 120 congressional Democrats are likely to vote in favour of the Peru agreement, meaning that it would pass with a considerably more comfortable margin than the Central American FTA, which passed by 2 votes with just 15 Democrats in favour. But after all the twists and turns that have occurred so far, nothing is certain yet.

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