Trade agreements are often promoted as a means to keep prices down and employment up. The matter, as one might expect, is not so straightforward especially when political freedom is not part of the equation.
The Singapore experience with free trade agreements is, perhaps, instructive. For years, human rights in the city-state have been dirty words, it was taboo to speak of them.
This has not, however, stopped Western leaders, both in the economic and political spheres, from continuing to disregard the lack of democracy and the abuse of human rights in Singapore in favor of trade and commerce.
In 2003, Singapore signed a trade pact with the US. At that time, the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (USSFTA) was touted as a job creator and that the world needed more, not less, free trade. The US Ambassador to Singapore at that time said that as many as 50,000 jobs would be created in Singapore by the trade pact.
I wasn't so sanguine. Without clauses to guarantee human rights and rights of Singapore's workers, the agreement would just help the business elite in the US and Singapore to exploit cheap labour. And I said so when I visited the US then. Of course, given the might of the corporate interests, I couldn't get in a word edgewise.
That was in 2003. Ten years have since passed and the results are in:
- According to the International Labor Organization, Singaporean workers have worked more hours than in most countries, and, perhaps unsurprisingly it has resulted in the workforce being the unhappiest in the world.
- Income inequality in Singapore is higher than that in the US. While the city-state has the highest proportion of millionaires in the world, nearly 5 percent of its workforce have an annual income of less than US$5,000.
- Despite the Economist Intelligence Unit ranking Singapore as the most expensive city in the world, there is no minimum wage law in the country.
- It's not just the lower-income workers who are getting pounded. A recent study showed that almost 50 percent of Singaporeans subsist from paycheck to paycheck.
- We have a pension savings system that is broken. An entire generation of workers is in danger of not having sufficient income to retire on.
- As for the younger generation, there is significant underemployment and limited opportunities for graduates.
- The rich in Singapore, in contrast, have never had it so good. The island, out of 23 economies, ranks 5th on the Crony-Capitalism Index compiled by The Economist.
It is clear that the benefits of the USSFTA have not accrued equitably. One reason for such a skewed outcome, at least for Singaporeans, is, as I've mentioned at the outset, the lack of democratic rights of the people.
The labour movement is under firm state guidance (the umbrella National Trade Unions Congress is headed by a cabinet minister), the print and broadcast media are owned by the government (Singapore ranks 150th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom index -- even Myanmar is higher at 145th), the ranks of the political opposition and civil society have been decimated through decades of state harassment, and fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly and association are severely proscribed.
More free trade in the pipeline
The European Union (EU) is about to sign its own FTA with Singapore. The proposed agreement makes extensive provisions for the protection of the rights of businesses, but almost nothing in it speaks of the protection of the rights of workers.
The US has also embarked on the expansive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which seeks to, among other things, "support the creation and retention of jobs."
I understand the importance of trade. Without it, modern world comes to a standstill. I also understand that in an imperfect world, no one expects perfect equality.
However, extremes in income inequality does not conduce to society's well-being. Without freedom there can be no free trade; without democracy there can be no workers rights' and without workers' rights, FTAs are only tools for exploitation.
If we are going to ensure that trade remains sustainable, then we must strive to make trade pacts beneficial for all -- from the lowliest worker to the mightiest CEO. For this to happen, free trade agreements cannot continue to ignore human rights.