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U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement: an attack on workers in both countries

Published Jan 20, 2011 9:09 PM

“I am very pleased that the United States and South Korea have reached agreement on a landmark trade deal that is expected to increase annual exports of American goods by up to $11 billion and support at least 70,000 American jobs,” stated President Barack Obama last December.

This “landmark deal” makes modifications to KORUS — the free trade agreement negotiated by former President George W. Bush and former south Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in 2007. Obama had campaigned against this agreement during his 2008 presidential bid. KORUS-FTA’s selling points are changes affecting the import and export of cars, trucks and agricultural products. The United Auto Workers and United Food and Commercial Workers union also issued statements of support.

Few workers, however, are raising a glass to what looks to them like another NAFTA. In effect since January 1, 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed with the support of Congressional Democrats and President Bill Clinton. NAFTA was followed by passage of similar trade pacts with Peru, Singapore and the Dominican Republic.

Since then, claims that lowering trade barriers would create jobs have been proven false. In 1994 the UAW had almost 766,000 dues-paying members. Today that figure is about 355,000. In 2009 the largest number of job cuts in a single company occurred at General Motors.

The “side agreements” covering labor rights and the environment have been worse than ineffective. In the U.S. thousands of workers are fired every year for trying to organize unions. Recently, electrical workers fighting privatization in Mexico were beaten and arrested. What about protections for the environment? Can you spell BP?

In fact, free trade agreements protect polluters through “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) provisions that allow corporations to file lawsuits when their investments are negatively affected.

When the Mexican town of Guadalcázar blocked the U.S. company Metalclad from constructing a landfill over local objections, NAFTA’s ISDS language allowed the company to sue and force Mexico to grant the permit and pay a fine of $16.5 million.

Worse than NAFTA, the “labor rights” language of KORUS has not been touched in the supposedly improved version. The agreement expressly prohibits any reference to the International Labor Organization’s conventions on the right to organize and bargain collectively. Instead, disputes are to be resolved by a “Labor Council” comprised of representatives of the two governments — neither of which is a friend of unions.

The International Metalworkers Federation states that in south Korea “labor repression is among the worst in the world.” (www.imfmetal.org) Around 200 union activists are in prison; they include leaders of the Korean Metal Workers Union, jailed for over a year for a 2009 sitdown strike at Ssangyong Motors, and of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions that protested KORUS in 2007.

Recent struggles of autoworkers at Hyundai and GM Daewoo have drawn attention to the plight of 8.5 million temporary or “precarious” workers, who are more than half of all south Korean workers and two-thirds of women workers. The KMWU predicts that KORUS-FTA will increase precarious work.

For the 30 million unemployed or underemployed U.S. workers, 70,000 jobs would do little. In fact, any job creation due to exports will likely be more than offset by imports of other products. Moreover, the agreement encourages companies to move jobs overseas.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2010 Investment Climate Statement, south Korea, KORUS-FTA “would be a major step to enhance the legal framework for U.S. investors operating in Korea. All forms of investment would be protected under the KORUS-FTA agreement. ... In addition, these protections would be backed by a transparent international arbitration mechanism, under which investors may, at their own initiative, bring claims against a government for an alleged breach of the KORUS-FTA chapter.”

Like NAFTA, KORUS-FTA is bad for the environment. Communities that take action against corporate polluters could likely see a repeat of the Metalclad case. The changes in the new free trade agreement, hailed by both Ford CEO Alan Mulally and UAW President Bob King, make it easier for Detroit to export vehicles by lowering south Korea’s fuel economy standards and reducing higher taxes on larger engines. That means more carbon emissions, adding to global warming.

On both sides of the Pacific, unions are raising their voices against this rotten deal. The AFL-CIO has come out against it, along with the Steelworkers, Machinists, Communication Workers, and United Electrical workers, as well as the International Longshore Workers Union.

Rank-and-file autoworkers are circulating petitions against KORUS-FTA. The KMWU, the KCTU and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions remain steadfastly opposed to any free trade agreement. Stopping the FTA was a major demand of November protests in Seoul during the G-20 Summit. Last month thousands of farmers, fearing the loss of 200,000 agricultural jobs if U.S. agribusiness floods south Korea with mass-produced food items, took to the streets in protest.

The writer has worked at Chrysler for 23 years. Next week: Unions and the new NAFTA: Which side are you on?

E-mail: [email protected]