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The Human Face (and Price) of Trade

The Witness blog series is back!

This month, Witness for Peace, in close collaboration with coalition partners in the United States and partners on the ground in Colombia, Nicaragua, Honduras and Mexico, is hosting our second annual blog series – this one focused on the changing system of international trade and its effects on communities both small and large.

When most people hear the word “trade,” their eyes already start to glaze over, visions of tariffs and collective bargaining agreements dancing in their hands. This is understandable – at first, trade doesn’t exactly seem like the most exciting topic, tied up as it is with broader issues of economics, national sovereignty, imports/exports and labor rights. However, trade has implications that reach far beyond the entrances to ports and meeting halls – really, if you’ve ever bought anything or had a job, trade has affected you in some way. Over the course of the next month, we’ll be using this space on the Witness blog to explore the many ways trade changes lives, livelihoods and environments, from small-scale farmers in the U.S. Midwest to port workers in the Colombian city of Buenaventura.

The topics of free trade, unions, workers’ rights and economic policy have become increasingly important throughout the Americas since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994, creating a trade bloc between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and opening the door for subsequent economic policies and practices that prioritized corporations and multinational companies over unions and workers themselves. Since then, such agreements have spread across the region, with the U.S. signing free trade accords with countries including Chile, Peru, Colombia and the majority of Central America.

Though supporters in governments and the business world insist that such agreements help boost competition and encourage sales, the truth is that the few individuals and corporations at the top are those that truly profit, while laborers, farmers and small businesses see few of the benefits and are often left worse off than they were before the agreement took effect. Such agreements lead to lower prices on imported goods that leave local businesses unable to compete without incurring significant losses; allow much greater influence for multinational corporations; facilitate widespread third-party contracting; and encourage extensive outsourcing in a “race to the bottom.” These effects are well-documented, and some communities are refusing to simply accept them as inevitable. Last August, Colombia’s farmers began a national strike that quickly spread across the country and reached the largest cities, primarily as a response to the negative effects the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, signed in 2011, had on their communities and their livelihoods.

Well-researched critiques and comprehensive analyses of such agreements are now more important than ever, with the U.S. on the verge of signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would become the most far-reaching trade agreement in the hemisphere and grant a staggering amount of rights and privileges to corporations and business interests, potentially even overriding national sovereignty and laws in some cases. Through this blog series, we will examine the effects and lessons learned from current trade agreements and labor practices throughout the Americas, and hope to shed some light on the potential regional and global impact of the TPP as well as bring more attention to what’s happening in our own backyards and in thousands of other cities and towns across the continents.

Check back here every weekday for bilingual posts highlighting some of the effects free trade agreements and changes in trade and labor policy have had on individuals and communities throughout the Americas, and how some of our writers have seen those changes reflected in their own lives and the lives of others. Feel free to take a look at our 2013 Drug War blog series as well.


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