American Friends Service Committee
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
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Putting a Human Face on the WTO Talks
Amy Gottlieb is Director of Immigrant Rights at the New York City office of the American Friends Service Committee. She traveled to Hong Kong to join the protests of the World Trade Organization meeting in December 2005.
As we ended the protest march in anticipation of the opening of the 6th World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial in Hong Kong, we walked through the streets of this city filled with skyscrapers and found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of young women. The women were seated on blankets, clustered in groups of five or six, enjoying picnics, chatting, and playing cards. They were mostly Filipina and Indonesian, and we learned that they were domestic workers taking advantage of their one day off. Despite the fact that many of these women are trained in professions, they have left their homes and families behind because so few opportunities exist for them. They are in Hong Kong on special domestic worker visas that do not allow them to become permanent residents.
We were in Hong Kong in part because the WTO, in its services agreements, is beginning to negotiate rules that could govern trade of human beings, and we are concerned about the implications for human rights and migration in these discussions. Seeing migrant women in Hong Kong, people who have been forced to seek employment far from their homes in part due to the impact of globalization on their local economies, brought down to earth the theoretical and policy discussions that we had engaged in prior to the trip. Their presence offered a visual backdrop to the high-level negotiations inside the Hong Kong Convention Center.
Migrants will be treated as commodities to be traded among nations if these WTO agreements are reached. Known in WTO-speak as Temporary Movement of Natural Persons and itemized under "Mode 4" of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), these agreements would permit the establishment of temporary labor contracts for low- and medium-skilled workers from developing countries. Such a program would allow people to cross international borders to fulfill a labor contract, but would not protect basic human and labor rights.
To open a dialogue about the issue, three organizations co-sponsored a day-long symposium in a Hong Kong park a mile from the Convention Center. Participants from around the world offered perspectives on the potential impact of the WTO's negotiations on the movement of people.
Currently, GATS commitments regarding Temporary Movement of Natural Persons focus on high-skilled labor. The proposal is to expand the agreement to include lower- and medium-skilled workers. Although not perfect by any means, current WTO commitments mirror wealthy countries' existing visa programs. For example, the high-skilled labor commitments as manifested in the US provide certain labor protections. Under such visas, concerns about rights abuses have been fewer, partly because in the case of employee abuses, corporate professionals are often able to file complaints and to stand up for their rights. Most high-skilled workers do not face the same difficult living conditions in their home countries that drive people to migrate; they have more freedom and flexibility to move back and forth.
On the other hand, if GATS Mode 4 commitments are expanded to a broader range of categories, the power of employers over lower-skilled employees may reach levels that create dangerous and exploitative work conditions. Under such a program, the ability of employees to assert their rights will be minimal. Based on the well-publicized abuses that came to light in the Bracero program between the US and Mexico, migrant rights groups have good reason for their concern that the new GATS model will be more of the same, but on a global scale.
Those who support the expansion of Mode 4 state that it is not a migration or labor policy. Rather they argue it is a way to satisfy the needs of developed countries to fill labor vacancies and for developing countries to send workers overseas to increase remittances (money sent by workers to their families back home) and support development. AFSC, along with other organizations working directly with migrants, recognizes the tensions that exist. However, the rights of individuals to be treated with dignity and respect must take precedence. We cannot sacrifice human rights in the name of satisfying corporate interests.
On Sunday, December 18, International Migrants Day and the closing day of the Ministerial, we marched in solidarity with migrant workers. Purple flags flying, domestic workers from Indonesia and the Philippines once again took advantage of their day off. This day, instead of sitting in the parks and on benches along Hong Kong's bustling streets, they walked in protest. Although many felt they had to hide their identities, they sang and chanted, voiced their passions, expressed their individuality and their community, and protested any plan that would commodify their humanity.