Friday, 29 September 2017

Union campaigns to save the rainforest (maybe even the world)

Brazil’s right wing President, Michel Temer, has abolished a 46,000 square km reserve of protected land in the Amazon rainforest, and made it available for mining exploitation. To put that into context, 46,000 square kilometres is about nine times the size of Prince Edward Island.

Why the Rainforest Matters?

With the seemingly endless stream of natural disasters afflicting the globe this summer - from the hurricanes in the U.S., to the Earthquakes in New Zealand, Mexico, and Indonesia – even skeptics accept climate change is a problem.

According to the World Wildlife Federation, the Rainforest is crucial to filtering and removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, a gas which drives global climate change. Without the rainforest, climate change is likely to be even greater.

Tropical forests also exchange water and energy with the atmosphere and are vital in controlling local and regional climates. The water released by tropical forests influences world climate and even ocean currents.

The Amazon Rainforest is the earth’s largest and most diverse rainforest. If we continue to see it destroyed, we will all lose the benefits of its biological diversity (or “biodiversity”), which is critical to a variety of issues pertinent to human health, including its ability to mitigate climate change. Biodiversity is widely regarded as the link between all organisms on earth. It binds each organism into the broader (and interdependent) ecosystem. In short, biodiversity “is the web of life.” As members of the web of life, none of us can afford to turn a blind eye to the destruction of the rainforest. A report of the Convention on Biological Diversity's 'Global Biodiversity Outlook 3' states it this way:

We can no longer see the continued loss of biodiversity as an issue separate from the core concerns of society: to tackle poverty, to improve the health, prosperity and security of present and future generations, and to deal with climate change. Each of those objectives is undermined by current trends in the state of our ecosystems, and each will be greatly strengthened if we finally give biodiversity the priority it deserves[1].

In case you need another reason why the Rainforest matters, consider that it’s currently estimated that less than 1% of the plants in the Rainforest have been studied for their medicinal potential. By destroying the rainforest, we might lose cures to any number of diseases.

Despite the importance of the Rainforest and the potentially catastrophic effects of its depletion, now that the reserve has been abolished, over 20 mining companies have expressed an interest in developing the area.

Organized Labour Fighting to Save the Rainforest
A Brazilian judge has temporarily halted the plan to abolish the reserve and exploit the area, but campaigners believe President Temer will push the plan through Congress.

Though the government and the companies may be more interested in profit than the future of the planet, organized labour, despite the need for jobs, is speaking out against plans to exploit the reserve area. The Confederac√£o Nacional dos Ramos Quimicos da Central Unica dos Trabalhadores (CNQ-CUT) states:

The heart of the Amazon forest, which is important not just in terms of the national environmental, but also owing to its great influence on the dynamics of global climate, was abolished by the stroke of a pen by the usurper Michel Temer.
The large mining companies had access to privileged information regarding the government’s actions in advance. The people did not take part in any discussion. Environmentalists, social movements and the local community were not consulted.
There was no debate; the measures benefit only the market. There is a need to discuss which model of economic and social development the country wants to adopt. Actions that prioritize primary resource extraction for foreign markets are part of an outdated and backward model that only concentrates wealth….
Valter Sanches, of IndustriALL Global Union, seconds their concern, and comments:

Turning a large part of the Amazon rainforest into a mining concession would be a disaster. Mineworkers want jobs, but not at the expense of the natural environment and the indigenous communities who live there.

Canadian Involvement

According to a publication of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, Canadian mining company, Belo Sun Mining Corp., plans to build the largest open-pit gold mine in Brazil. The pit will be located in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest and on the banks of the Xingu river.

The mine is expected to generate a great deal of toxic waste. Families and indigenous people in the area, who live off the land, will need to be relocated for the project to go forward.

The indigenous communities directly affected by the Project have not been consulted. Brazil is a signatory to Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989) which requires consultation.


This story is, unfortunately, yet another example of the power of greed to overwhelm the needs of people and the planet. As the CNQ-CUT campaign demonstrates, people are more interested in having a future for their children and the planet than in reaping the short-term gains of unsustainable environmental exploitation. 

That a Canadian company is said to be involved in the potential destruction of the Rainforest is disappointing, if unsurprising. Canada, of course, has a long history of failing to engage in proper consultation with aboriginal peoples before exploiting the natural environment. A recent example of this failure is seen in Saugeen First Nation v. Ontario, where the Divisional Court determined that the Provincial Government failed in its duty to consult the Saugeen Ojibway First Nation before approving a limestone quarry on their traditional lands.

But it doesn’t all need to be bad news. The increasing climate disasters wrought, in part, by the greed for profit, could be the catalyst that unites seemingly disparate groups to campaign for the common cause of protecting the environment and all of our futures. Organized labour, NGO’s, and concerned citizens could find a silver lining in these threats to our environment (and world) and form a broader, larger, and stronger union.

Union’s all over the world have an opportunity to lead the charge for green jobs and a sustainable economic activity. This has long been recognized as a possibility, but this year might just be the year for organized labour to lead a focused push in that direction.

[1] At p. 13.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Canada's goals for 'progressive' NAFTA include labour and environmental standards, gender equality

Canada, the U.S.A., and Mexico are in talks to renegotiate NAFTA, an agreement President Trump reportedly considers “fundamentally flawed”. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in Canada who doesn’t agree that NAFTA is flawed, but Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, is said to be optimistic about the negotiations.  

Though the three countries have entered a confidentiality agreement to protect offers made during the negotiations, we can still get a sense of what Canada will be aiming to achieve. Before leaving for Washington, Freeland set out Canada’s core objectives in the negotiations: 

1.    Address technological changes. Freeland states that one of Canada’s aims is to modernize NAFTA to reflect the technological changes since it was first negotiated 23 years ago.

2,     Make NAFTA more “progressive.” According to Freeland, Canada hopes to accomplish a more progressive agreement by:
  • Incorporating strong labour safeguards in the core of the agreement. In this regard, Freeland states:

    One reason that these progressive elements, particularly on the  environment and labour, are so important is that they are how we guarantee that the modernized NAFTA will not only be an exemplary free trade deal, it will also be a fair trade deal. Canadians broadly support free trade. But their enthusiasm wavers when trade agreements put our workers at an unfair disadvantage because of the high standards that we rightly demand. Instead, we must pursue progressive trade agreements that are win-win, helping workers both at home and abroad to enjoy higher wages and better conditions.

  • Integrating enhanced environmental provisions to ensure no NAFTA country weakens environmental protection to attract investment, and that supports efforts to address climate change;
  • Adding a new chapter on gender rights, in keeping with Canada’s commitment to gender equality.
  • Improving Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples, by adding an Indigenous chapter; and
  • Reforming the Investor-State Dispute Settlement process, to ensure that governments have an unassailable right to regulate in the public interest.
3. Cut red tape for the business community. According to Freeland, Canada will seek to bring regulations into harmony to make it easier for business people on either side of the border.

4. Liberalize government procurement. This prerogative is sure to be a sticking point in the negotiations, as it will push back against the Trump administration’s buy-American rhetoric. Freeland has stated:

Local-content provisions for major government contracts are political junk-food, superficially appetizing, but unhealthy in the long run.

5. Freer movement of professionals. This would be accomplished by extending the temporary entry provisions in Chapter 16 of NAFTA to reflect the needs of businesses. 

6. Limit protectionism. Freeland states that Canada will seek to preserve a fair process of anti-dumping and duties.

Final Thoughts

The Good

Many of Canada’s goals in entering these negotiations could have a positive impact on workers.

At present labour standards under NAFTA are contained in side agreements, which provide inadequate protections to workers. Bringing strengthened labour standards into the core of the agreement could mean more protections for workers’ safety, the right to bargain collectively, and the right to strike. These improvements would give labour a chance to have more input and control over working conditions.

Also, seeking to reduce the attractiveness of foreign labour by advocating for fair wages for all workers, no matter which country is involved, could limit unfair wage competition and keep jobs in Canada.

In theory, anti-dumping provisions could protect the local economies of all parties to the agreement. Under anti-dumping provisions, any of the three nations involved could impose duties on imports if it believes they are priced below fair market value.

The Bad
While it’s laudable that Canada is open to reforms to the ISDS provisions, and that it will seek to protect its right to make environmental regulations, it must go further. Canada has been the most commonly sued country under the ISDS provisions of NAFTA, being penalized, in part, because of a desire to protect our environment and industries. ISDS provisions give corporations too much control over sovereign entities and it would be best to seek an elimination of the ISDS provisions entirely.

Further, there’s good reason to be skeptical of any renegotiated NAFTA, given the negative impact the initial NAFTA agreement has had on labour generally and organized labour particularly. If nothing else, NAFTA represents a facet of the ongoing shift to a global economy, and for that reason alone must be regarded with suspicion. The agreement has facilitated the ongoing offshoring/outsourcing of jobs and has had a devastating impact on the labour movement and workers’ rights. If Canada hopes to create a truly positive agreement for workers, it must remain mindful of the agreement’s dangerous potential to damage labour. If Canada is serious about defending labour and workers’ rights, it could argue for a provision that prevents work from being outsourced to right-to-work regions or states. That, at least, would help to ensure workers are not being exploited. Freeland’s objectives say nothing about right-to-work.

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While Canada’s objectives could be improved, they are largely positive. According to a report, Trump has said both Mexico and Canada were being “very difficult” in talks to renegotiate NAFTA. With the trouble NAFTA has brought to Canadian workers, Canada has every reason to be difficult in the renegotiations, and we can only hope the President is being sincere on this point.