U.S., Korean workers: Free trade pact spurs race to bottom

Despite strong resistance from labor and civic organizations in both the United States and South Korea, President Bush and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak vowed to push through the stalled Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA).

When Lee met with Bush April 18 at Camp David, according to Lee’s spokesperson, the two presidents chatted “like old friends,” and pledged that their countries’ legislatures would ratify the agreement.

Lee’s right-wing Grand National Party now dominates South Korea’s Parliament, so ratification there is likely, though there is a strong upsurge of grassroots protest. But U.S. ratification is much less likely. Contrary to Bush’s statements, Democrats in Congress, including presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are generally opposed to the agreement.

“The only trade agreements I believe in are ones that put workers first,” Sen. Obama told members of the United Auto Workers in November. “Because trade deals aren’t good for the American people if they aren’t good for working people. That’s why I opposed CAFTA. That’s why I oppose the South Korea Free Trade Agreement.”

Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, enthusiastically supports the agreement.

A recent statement issued jointly by the AFL-CIO and Change to Win in the U.S. and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions says, “The KORUS FTA is based on an economic model that has privileged investor rights over workers’ rights, public services and the environment.”

The joint statement continues, “It is clear that this model will permit restructuring and provoke a ‘race to the bottom’ on working standards in both countries, resulting in the deterioration of wages and working standards.”

If passed, KORUS will be the largest free trade agreement signed by the U.S. after NAFTA. Negotiations on it began in February 2006 and concluded last year. Ratification has been stalled by major protests, especially by labor and farmers’ groups, in both countries.

The Korean Alliance against KORUS FTA, which represents more than 300 Korean organizations, including labor, farmers’ groups and nongovernmental organizations, and hundreds of thousands of people, made clear their concerns in a 2007 report to the U.S. Congress.

The report charged the agreement would limit Koreans’ access to medicines and decrease Korean agricultural production by 45 percent, “meaning that roughly half of South Korea’s farmers will lose their livelihoods.” Further, implementation would diminish Korean authority to regulate water use and energy and even education. The alliance also expressed concern about harmful effects on Korean environmental policies.

Many Koreans, including progressives in the south and North Korean leaders, also fear that the agreement is a way for U.S. imperialist interests to strengthen their reach over the whole peninsula.

For American workers, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in April 2007 when the agreement was concluded, KORUS would “exacerbate and accelerate the loss of good jobs in the U.S. manufacturing sector, especially in autos, apparel and electronics.”

South Korean President Lee represents the ultra-right Grand National Party, which has its roots in the dictatorship that ended in the 1980s. After years of liberal rule, the GNP won the presidential vote last December and the parliamentary vote this April, when it trounced the liberal United Democratic Party. The GNP won a majority of the 299-member legislature, while the UDP won only about 80 seats, in an election that commentators said was characterized, more than anything else, by widespread demoralization.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions says the reason for the ascendancy of the GNP was that, while most people agreed with the liberal UDP’s rapprochement with North Korea, the liberals weren’t able to address the growing rich/poor divide in South Korea.

What’s more, former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun was an original drafter of the KORUS agreement.

Consequently, facing a choice between a pro-KORUS liberal party that had lost the support of labor, the ultra-right GNP and a disunited left opposition, most South Koreans sat out the April vote, pushing voter turnout down to 46 percent, the lowest in South Korea’s history.

dmargolis@ pww.org