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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 1999

WTO Threatens Our Health & Education Systems

Bill Graham
Public education and public health care in Canada are at risk in the World Trade Organization. Pierre Pettigrew, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, proclaimed in Seattle that Canadian public education and health care would not be on the table. But he presented no means by which he or the government would protect our education and health care systems from attack under the rule structures of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) which will be renegotiated starting early next year despite the failure of the recent Seattle meeting.

Established five years ago, on Jan.1, l995, the WTO replaced the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which was drafted in 1947 along with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The WTO is a forum for negotiations over trade, and to settle trade disputes among member states.

The primary purpose of the WTO is to liberalize global trade to the fullest extent possible by freeing it from any form of government regulation. Its agenda is deregulation and privatization. Member states have access to the markets of other member states. If they are found to be in violation of the rules established by the WTO member states can be severely punished.

Decision making in the WTO is controlled by the world's most powerful countries, including the United States, Japan, the European Union and Canada, but the real power lies in the hands of the multinational corporations which carry on most of the world's trade. Thus, the WTO rules have been described as nothing more than an international bill of rights for multinational corporations. Those rules severely limit the ability of member states to regulate international trade.

The laws of member states may be undercut by the force of the WTO which acts not only as legislator of its own rules, but as judge and jury as well. The WTO does not operate democratically. And, since trade negotiations are carried out in secret, there is no public accountability either.

The GATS is one of about a dozen trade agreements contained within the WTO. It covers just about every possible means of supplying a service.

It includes the right of a member state to set up a commercial presence in the export market of another member state, i.e., the right to establish a private business to supply private health care or private education and a myriad of other services.

Canada has, in general, committed itself to maintaining a publicly funded health care system through the Canada Health Act, and a publicly funded education system including colleges and universities.

GATS puts our public health care and education systems at risk by the deregulators and privatizers. Government funding now provided to public institutions would have to be provided to the private institutions as well.

Moreover, laws protecting the environment or establishing labour standards can be considered as barriers to free trade; so too can be food and drug safety regulations and child-labour laws, for example. They can all go the way
of the Canada/US Auto Pact, the most successful trade agreement in history between the two states -- which is now, however, in violation of WTO rules.

It is true that GATS only applies to services which are specified by the member state in question, which is why Minister Pettigrew alleges Canada will not put health care and education on the WTO table. However, it is not that simple. The U.S. and the European Union have made it known they intend to broaden the application of GATS to these two sectors, and when they do, Canada will be hard pressed to avoid the consequences.

Furthermore, the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) transforms the entire area of domestic intellectual property rights into a regime subject to WTO rules which, in effect, are the U.S. rules. Intellectual property rights are supposed, in theory, to recognize and reward intellectual creativity and innovation.

But TRIPs is based on a highly restricted notion of creativity and innovation -- roughly similar to the very restricted notion in the report of the Expert Panel on the Commercialization of University Research. It is weighted in favour of multinational corporations and against the citizens of the world in general. It is a shift from rights held in common to rights held privately. As the internationally acclaimed Indian physicist and ecologist, Vandana Shiva, has said:

TRIPs is "a mechanism for the privatization of the intellectual commons and a deintellectualization of civil society. The mind becomes a corporate monopoly." It is "a prescription for a monoculture of knowledge ... Intellectual property rights are recognized only as private rights ... recognized only when knowledge and innovation generate profits, not when they meet social needs ... the social good is no longer recognized. Once priorities shift from social needs to potential return on investment, entire streams of learning will be forgotten ... The tree of knowledge withers from the 'enclosure of the intellectual commons.' Innovation in the public domain is necessary for the innovation that is privatized by IP. The return-on-investment logic linked to IP, however, fails to replenish the public support to the public domain."

About a year ago a combination of NGOs and ordinary citizens forced the OECD to give up (at least temporarily) its attempt to enact the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which would have meant Canada could not protect the environment, social policy or culture.

Now, with similar threats coming from the WTO, most Canadians remain unconvinced the federal government will take action to protect the environment, labour standards, or our public institutions of health and education.

These fears are exacerbated by the Harris and Klein governments which support special corporate interest groups instead of the broader public interest of civil society.

That is why there must be a citizens' democratic alternative to the WTO as it now stands, an international agreement which would require transnational corporations, in exchange for access to markets, to meet social obligations that would ensure democratic rights and freedoms, and enshrine citizens' rights to public social services, health care, and education.

CAUT, along with our international sister higher education associations passed at the recent Education International conference in Budapest a strong set of recommendations concerning the WTO.

It stated that "the free market model which underpins these liberalization efforts is inappropriate for tertiary education and education generally"; that "education be excluded from the scope of the GATS"; that there be "full openness and transparency of negotiations on trade in services, publication of government mandates, consultation with national unions, publication of reports and projects discussed within the OECD"; that there be "full participation by national education unions in the determination of their countries' position"; that there be "recognition of the right of national governments to regulate the supply of tertiary education services"; and that "action taken by governments for the provision of public tertiary education cannot be considered a disguised restriction on trade in services."