When Santa comes to town early...

Santa has come early this year. At least it must seem like it for the large MultiNational Corporations (MNCs), the new economic ‘rulers of the world.’

Oct 14, 2015

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
Santa has come early this year. At least it must seem like it for the large MultiNational Corporations (MNCs), the new economic ‘rulers of the world.’

While most of us have focused on the massive 1MDB scandal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement has stealthily crept up on us.

On October 5, the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations, including Malaysia, reached agreement on the TPP after five years of secret negotiations.

The first thing we have to be clear about is that this TPP agreement is not a ‘free trade agreement.’ That term ‘trade agreement’ is part of the corporate propaganda ploy to try and ‘sell’ the TPP deal to a naive public. So what should we call the TPP? How about the ‘MNCs Protection and Promotion Agreement’ — for that is what it really is.

The TPP is just a high-falutin’ name to hide the fact that this pact is a cover to strengthen the position of Big Businesses across the region, specifically, the powerful transnational corporations. Only six out of 30 chapters in the agreement deal with trade, the other chapters cover a whole gamut of issues to protect and further the interests of these MNCs.

Look at it this way: if the agreement was really for the benefit of ordinary people in the 12 nations, why did the negotiations have to be carried out in secret? For the TPP ‘drivers’ to bulldoze the pact through, the public had to be kept in the dark about its real impact. Those corporate lobby groups certainly didn’t want the public to know about the implications, to ask hard questions and to protest loudly. Whatever information the public obtained was via websites like Wikileaks.

Well, it was not exactly a secret to everyone. Powerful US corporate lobby groups were privy to what was going on.

In fact, the TPP may be described as a Christmas wish-list for the MNCs, not that they have all been particularly well behaved during the year. Around the time of the Bishop of Rome’s visit to the United States, one drug firm announced a 5,000 per cent increase in the price of a 60-year-old drug used to treat patients with compromised immune systems from HIV/Aids and certain types of cancer. The move sparked a public outcry.

The most insidious feature of the TPP is a provision that gives multinational corporations the power to sue national governments for loss of future profits as a result of government policies or actions. This is so, even if a government acts to protect public interest. These governments may be slapped with hundreds of millions of US dollars in damages if those policies affect MNCs’ market share or their profits. The public ultimately has to cough up these amounts.

Worse, these cases are heard in secret, opaque international tribunals under the innocent- sounding name ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) mechanism. In effect, this mechanism strengthens the hand of the MNCs against nation-states which are supposed to protect the interests of ordinary people.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the TPP will be the large pharmaceutical MNCs known as Big Pharma. The patents for branded drugs will be protected against competition from cheaper generic medicines for five to eight years (less than the 12 years that Big Pharma had hoped for). But even five to eight years is a long time for those who need those drugs to stay alive.

“In recent days, the reporting around the TPP has focussed only on an exclusivity period for biological medicines, with a reported push back on the 12 year period proposed by the US being presented as a victory for developed countries in the TPP, like Australia,” noted Shiba Phurailatpam of APN+, a network of people living with HIV in the Asia Pacific region.

“But even a mandatory five-year period of exclusivity, along with several other restrictive conditions imposed by the US, will have a massive, adverse impact in countries like Malaysia and Vietnam, as will the other damaging provisions in the intellectual property chapter. The conclusion of this trade deal makes a mockery of the Sustainable Development Goals and the new WHO HIV treatment guidelines that call for immediate initiation of treatment.”

The TPP also removes tariffs on a host of imported goods but this removal is likely to benefit large US corporations the most. US Trade Representative, Michael Froman said recently, that the TPP would cut 18,000 taxes imposed by other nations on US-made exports. So, which nation do you think will benefit the most from tariff removals?

But not everyone in the United States will benefit, and that is why Obama will have a tough time getting the TPP approved in the US. Many are concerned that American jobs will be lost, as more US-based MNCs would invest in other countries with low labour and environmental standards where workers can be paid less and less money needs to be spent in protecting the environment (due to weak standards or enforcement).

Critics have described the TPP chapters on workers’ right and environmental protection as little more than public relations exercises, with little hope of much enforcement. Recently, we saw how the United States upgraded Malaysia from Tier 3 to Tier 2 in their annual human-trafficking report when there was little to show in terms of any real improvements to curb human trafficking here. Activists saw it as a cynical move to remove any hindrance to Malaysia coming on board the TPP.

Meanwhile, there is concern among farmers here that heavily subsidised US agricultural produce will start pouring into our market. And, will genetically modified imported food like soya and maize be appropriately labelled so that consumers can make an informed choice? I doubt it.

The effects of the TPP will undermine the ideals set forth in Catholic Social Teaching, which places much hope on governments to protect the common good. If the TPP gives more power and influence to the MNCs at the expense of the governments which are supposed to protect the interests of ordinary people (including workers), their health and the environment, that can’t be good.

In the meantime, the stakes are high. But we have not even seen the official text, which cannot be modified now. It is either we take it (the TPP) or leave it.

I suggest we leave it.

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