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'No Deals at WTO'

'No Deals at WTO'

by kenneth ()

"It's a lot of pressure but I've enjoyed doing all this," Elizabeth Tang of the Hong Kong People's Alliance on the World Trade Organisation says of the "very hectic" year of organising civil society actions ahead of the 6th WTO Ministerial Conference.

Meantime, she says awareness of trade issues, normally confined to boardrooms and government meetings, has been spreading among activists and trade unions in Hong Kong.

There will be three major protest marches and some 50 events, seminars, exhibitions and concerts during the WTO meet, and Tang says Hong Kong people pride themselves on "being able to express their opinions but in a very orderly way".

Johanna Son of IPS Asia-Pacific talks to Tang, who also heads the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.

Q: Is the WTO something to be engaged in - or something to be wrecked? Civil society will say a lot of things in Hong Kong, but will they be listened to?

A: There are many opportunities for us to engage. We have had three meetings attended by the Secretary of Commerce, Trade Industry John Tsang, who will be chairing the WTO ministerial. (WTO chief) Pascal Lamy came in October and initiated a roundtable with NGOs, and he was very frank in those discussions.

At the same time, we have no clue on what will happen to what we have been presenting. It's like 'you can talk and we hear you', but it seems all our efforts have no impact. This is only for one year, but I think if our governments continue to treat NGO concerns this way, without taking seriously their positions into the process when formulating positions -- even the actual (ministerial) text -- then I think NGOs will decide that they will not continue this kind of so-called engagement.

The WTO as a structure is fine. If you look at WTO principles, they are all fine but in actual operation it's another story. So we have to maintain this kind of multilateral structure, but it can't continue to operate in the way it has been operating.

Q: What's the role of trade unions?

A: In Hong Kong, trade unions are playing the leading role in organising the whole campaign and doing education activities. Precisely because it is the workers who have begun to feel the brunt of all these unfair consequences of free trade first.

A lot of workers in Hong Kong are facing wage cuts and are being forced into self-employment or short-term contracts, and it's because our government has to make sure we have to have a competitive environment for foreign investors and enable Hong Kong to be called the freest economy in the world. So they have to make sure everything is flexible, including labour. So the link is there, but normally our workers don't see the immediate source - our government policy.

Q: Can developing countries count on China to bring up their cause at the WTO? It's a big economic power, a WTO member, yet says it's a developing country.

A: It's a very big question. Pascal Lamy is very fond of using China and India as examples of how developing countries can benefit from the WTO. But in the case of China - if you look at figures of economic growth and foreign investment, they are really big. You can't deny the high rates of economic development, but again it's without proper rules and measures to ensure how this wealth can be fairly distributed. How to make sure that those people, especially workers, will be protected in the process?

The rural economy is collapsing and farmers cannot sell their products even inside China. (After agricultural tariffs were cut) a lot of farmers have been moving to cities. . . but then the workers go into factories with minimum protection, no health and safety measures. The attraction of profit is too great. The workers who died in Heilongjiang (mining accident in November) are still earning 400 RMB a month (50 U.S. dollars.) I don't envy China for having all this impressive economic growth, when you know how workers are paying a huge cost for economic development.

So China for the WTO is a telling example of how developed countries can benefit from the WTO. But for trade unions, for NGOs, China is also a telling example to show how the WTO is only one-sidedly driving market opening as the means for free trade, without at the same time making rules and laws to ensure that this growth is built on partnership with people's organisations and on conditions that protect everyone engaged in the process.

Q: How you would define success at the Hong Kong meeting?

A: We don't want to see any deals being made close to the present ministerial text. We have been telling our secretary, John Tsang, not to rush at the ministerial conference, not to aim to get a conclusion for the sake of getting a conclusion. We'd rather the whole process be slowed down. Let national governments go back to their own countries and conduct thorough public consultation and genuine engagement with people's organisations to decide how and in what pace they want trade liberalisation. (END/JS/IPSAP/071205)


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