Trade and the Green New Deal

Giant chickens opposing a US trade deal visit the North Somerset constituency surgery of Liam Fox MP. Protest organised by Global Justice Now highlights the concern that hormone-filled, chlorine-washed meat will flood British markets.

Global Justice Now
Trade treaties, comparative advantage and social inequalities.

For example firms may establish themselves in jurisdictions where they pay less tax, which has a negative impact on the revenue available to provide local public education, health services and, crucially, environmental standards.

International trade and investment treaties are built on the problematic assumption that countries trade with one another because they have different competitive advantages which can be exchanged to everyone’s mutual benefit.

The problem with this assumption is that it fails to articulate how various advantages came about.

The ways in which states and corporations come to gain specific competitive advantages are through processes permeated by social inequalities, including gender and racial inequalities.

This series of articles has been published in partnership with Dalia Gebrial and Harpreet Kaur Paul and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in London. It first appeared in a collection titled Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal.

Inequalities

Underpinning gender inequalities in the labour market, as feminist economists have argued, is the pursuit of competitive advantage by avoiding paying towards the full costs of the reproduction of the labour force and of our planet.

For example firms may establish themselves in jurisdictions where they pay less tax, which has a negative impact on the revenue available to provide local public education, health services and, crucially, environmental standards.

Multinational corporations also create complex supply webs to push any costs of contributing in these ways to local contractors who then squeeze the labour force and exploit or neglect the environment in order to extract profits on small operating revenues, while big brands take the bulk of the trade benefit.

Competitiveness

The way in which workers and the environment are treated and regulated is constitutive of what we call competitive advantage, rather than being its consequence or ‘externality’.

The pressure on firms and states to abide by the ‘commercial provisions’ of trade and investment treaties (to say nothing of the private contracts signed between firms) means that, unless the contribution workers and the environment make to production and trade is properly acknowledged, treated and remunerated, its invisibilization and/or devaluation will continue to provide a source of competitiveness in the global economy.

How, then, can this contribution be acknowledged in international trade regulation so that ‘employment’, ‘environmental protection’ and ‘gender equality’ concerns - to use the terminology of these treaties - can transform the substance of ‘commercial provisions’?

Re-thinking

If we start from the premise that the composition and conditions of re/productive labour vary from country to country, depending on gender, class, race, ethnicity, migration flows and so on, and that resources are unequally distributed between and within the Global South and Global North, then uniform and universal environmental and labour regulation through multilateral trade rules is undesirable, particularly when linked to trade sanctions.

What is possible and necessary, however, is to hold the ‘commercial provisions’ of current trade treaties to account, and we can start by scrutinizing their effects on environmental, working and living conditions.

A further step would involve re-thinking trade treaties and commercial relations more broadly, putting decent environmental, working and living conditions, rather than global competition and capital accumulation, at the centre of trade policies. 

This Author 

Donatella Alessandrini is a Professor Of Law at University Of Kent in Canterbury, UK.

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