Instead of being free to follow economic policies that best suit them, countries in Southern Africa are being put under enormous pressure to open up their markets and expose their producers to unfair competition. Trade rules and agreements also often allow big business to profit at the expense of people and the environment.
The UK government has started formulating its trade policy as it prepares to leave the European Union. Yet it is doing so in an undemocratic way. British parliamentarians have no powers to scrutinise ongoing negotiations and provide direction. The public has no right of input or to know what is being done. The Trade Justice Movement, of which ACTSA is a member, has links to actions that you can take to support trade democracy.
A Closer Look
From 1979, an ideology known as neoliberalism has been widespread in many governments and influential intergovernmental institutions, including the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organisation. Central to the neoliberal agenda is the belief that free markets are a panacea. Therefore trade and investment liberalisation, as well as privatisation and deregulation, are key elements of neoliberalism. The governments of rich countries and the likes of the World Trade Organisation have pushed neoliberal policies upon poor countries since the 1980s.
While the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not perfect, they recognise the importance of ensuring that trade works to support sustainable and equitable development. Yet rich and powerful nations often pursue trade policies that put profits before the needs of people and planet. Vulnerable communities in poor countries, including in Southern Africa, often feel the worst effects of unethically-designed trade policy, from declining labour standards to the collapse of local industries.
Trade deals often represent a ‘race-to-the bottom’, rather than treating existing national and international laws and standards as the absolute minimum of what is acceptable. Moreover, issues that poor countries tend to prioritise – such as ending trade-distorting agricultural subsidies, improving market access, and developing strong waivers on intellectual property provisions and public stockholding for food security – are often not prioritised in international negotations.
The Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the European Union and 6 countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) - Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Swaziland, is a legally binding trade agreement that entered into effect on 10 October 2016. The EPA has been heavily criticised for not providing Southern African countries with the freedom to develop policies that will lead to pro-poor economic development while protecting labour rights and other human rights.
We believe that trade has considerable potential to help Southern African countries to achieve rights, equality and development; but current global trade and investment rules, along with actual bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, are not based on the principles of democratic accountability and international solidarity. Southern African countries should be permitted to protect in the public interest and nurture their infant industries.
ACTSA was involved in discussions about the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with civil society organisations in the UK and in Southern Africa. A letter to Members of the European Parliament was signed by a range of trade unionists and provides a useful summary of the main concerns regarding the EPA. We will continue to engage with trade unions and other civil society organisations to see how we can best monitor the impacts of this trade agreement. You can read the full letter here.