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Conservatives introduce ludicrous Canada-Honduras FTA; NDP, Greens to vote against it

Yesterday (January 29), the Conservatives introduced ratifying legislation for the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement. The bill (C-20) is implausibly called the “Canada-Honduras Economic Growth and Prosperity Act.” Implausible because of how little trade we do with the Central American country, how unlikely it is the FTA will change that, and most importantly how the gains would almost certainly go to Honduran oligarchs and Canadian multinationals without ever filtering down to the people.

Total bilateral trade between Canada and Honduras was only $257.29 million in 2012. That includes $38.64 million in exports and $218.59 million in imports. More than a third of those imports are the products of fruit, vegetable and tree nut farming. The latter is increasingly controversial as local magnates are implicated in murder, intimidation and land clearances to make way for the crop, which is used to make biofuels for western countries.

Another third of Canadian imports come from clothing made in high efficiency, low wage factories by companies like Canadian giant Gildan. The Honduran Women’s Collective described working conditions in these plants in a November 2013 statement opposing the Canadian FTA:

These exploitative and enslaving working conditionssuch as those which exist in Gildan Activewear headquartered in Canada and promoted by nation states and trade treaties—involve  normal work days of an illegal 11 and a half hours, with obligatory overtime, bringing the work week to up to 69 hours. Its system of production goals and quotas is indexed to the salary paid; this therefore brings about the even greater exploitation of having to produce 500 dozen every day in order to earn a weekly salary of L1,600,00, which equals US$76.16.

While there was a lot of debate in the House of Commons yesterday on human rights violations by powerful economic interests, drug cartels and the government, only Green Party leader Elizabeth May suggested the FTA would do nothing to change the situation and would most likely make things worse, as the Canadian and U.S. trade deals with Colombia are proving. The NDP will oppose the deal because of the country’s precarious human rights situation while the Liberals and Conservative will vote for it. 

“The government of Honduras was essentially installed in a military coup in 2009. It has conducted two flawed elections since then that have been roundly condemned as corrupt. It violates its citizens’ human rights; suppresses freedom of speech and association; tolerates killings, kidnappings, and the arbitrary detention of thousands of its citizens; has the highest murder rate in the world; is the planet’s most dangerous place for journalists; represses the media, opposition, and citizens who peacefully express their political views; is a major drug trafficking centre, with 80% of cocaine shipments from South America; has an average of 10 massacres per month; and allows paramilitary squads to operate with impunity,” said Don Davies, NDP trade critic, in his opening statement on Bill C-20.

“Canadians would not support a free trade agreement with the government of Ukraine, North Korea, or Iran. Why does the government believe it should support an agreement with Honduras that has an equally bad record of violating the democratic and human rights standards not only of Honduras but of Canada and the world?” he asked. (The NDP voted for a recent free trade deal with Jordan, a country with strict laws on what you can and can’t say about the monarchy.)

New Liberal Trade Critic Chrystia Freeland spoke vaguely about the need to look beyond small deals with countries like Honduras, and to produce a “trade vision that is much more ambitious, wider reaching, and which fully and ambitiously integrates Canada into the global economy.” She said the NDP “raised the important point that this is a trade deal with a country that has a very troubled record and very troubled reality on many political labour and environmental issues.”

Nonetheless, “We in the Liberal Party believe that it is important for us to do this deal,” Freeland said. “Not every country in the world is perfect, and we have to trade in the global economy. We believe that having a strong trading relationship can and must be a way to be a positive force in those economies.” (Emphasis mine because, well, it feels a bit like saying, ‘Hey look, the guy skins cats alive but don’t let that ruin this lovely dinner party.’)

So the Liberal position is Canada should sign the deal and then carefully watch its implementation, and make sure companies are voluntarily living up to their corporate social responsibility standards. This is clearly not working in Colombia, where the federal government is neglecting its legislative duty to present an honest annual assessment of the its free trade deal on human rights in that country.

A final comment on the investor-to-state dispute process in the Canada-Honduras FTA. We can’t seriously talk about human rights, environmental standards and economic prosperity for all while Canada continues to give its multinational corporations more rights than the governments (or any other human being) of its trading partners. Green leader May put it this way in the House of Commons debate:

I love my country, but an agreement like this would support Canadian mining companies’ taking advantage of indigenous rights in other countries. It would give a Canadian mining company the kind of rights that I do not want the Chinese state-owned enterprises to have, which is to bring arbitration cases against us if we toughen our laws. This agreement would work against the interests of equity, democracy, civil society, and human rights in Honduras… I would beg my hon. friend, the parliamentary secretary, who is an honourable friend, to have nothing to do with promoting this agreement.

The honourable friend here, Conservative Erin O’Toole, replied there is “a philosophical disagreement with our government and the opposition” on the issue of trade deals and investment treaties such as the FIPA (with China and other countries). “I think the hon. member should look and see that this agreement has a corporate social responsibility component, it has a labour component, and it has an environmental component.”

We’ve all looked and there’s nothing to see. None of the labour, environmental or CSR text is nearly as strong or as enforceable as the investor “rights” chapter in Canada’s FTAs and FIPAs.

The deal is economically insignificant for the Canadian economy. It is almost certainly going to increase the likelihood of forced land clearances, state aggression against political opposition and economically motivated assassinations. Its investment chapter serves no other purpose than to give Canadian multinationals, be they sweatshop owners or mining companies, new legal tools to keep democracy, labour and environmental standards at bay.

The only option for all opposition parties in Canada should be to reject the deal outright.

The full House of Commons debate from yesterday is here (watch out for “rising tides” that “lift all boats”). After an eventual 2nd reading vote, the FTA ratifying legislation will go to committee for further discussion.