THE WORLD Trade Organisation (WTO) meets in Seattle in the United States at the end of this month. People across the world are preparing to protest against it. The WTO claims to be about ensuring fair play in international trade. Its real function is to act as the bully boy for the world's most powerful governments and multinational corporations. It helps patrol a world where eight giant corporations grab more wealth than half of the world's people combined and where 1.2 billion people live in abject poverty.
The WTO's trade polices are designed to favour the governments of countries like the US and Britain. It encourages a 'race to the bottom' over labour rights. Countries are hurled into a competition to offer the most 'flexible' workforce and the least regulation of companies.
Over 40 of the world's biggest companies are sponsoring the Seattle WTO meeting. They include Microsoft, Boeing, General Motors, Procter & Gamble and Ford. The meeting will discuss measures to benefit these multinationals. They include the possibility of an investment agreement that would prevent countries putting additional taxes, or health and safety requirements, on multinational firms. The WTO will also discuss smoothing the way for the introduction of genetically modified (GM) foods globally. It could outlaw any attempts to force firms to label GM foods.
The five day initial meeting (which may then lead into years of further negotiations) could even have a massive impact on the health service here in Britain. Public sector projects are exempt from WTO rules. But New Labour is pushing Private Finance Initiative schemes which bring private firms into the NHS. This could bring the NHS inside WTO rules, a prospect those behind the private health care industry in the US are drooling over.
The US trade negotiator at Seattle, Charlene Barschefsky, says her objectives include 'encouraging more privatisation' and 'allowing more foreign ownership of healthcare facilities'. Susan George, the campaigning author, says, 'If the agreement on health services including all these provisions is actually tabled and signed at the WTO, we can kiss goodbye to our public health care systems in Europe.'
Since 1995, when the WTO was formed, it has consistently ruled in favour of the rich. It has:
Allowed the US to maintain barriers to its own market while battering down restrictions against US multinationals put up by poorer countries.
Decided that European countries cannot ban imports of hormone injected beef from the US on health grounds.
Backed massive US owned banana firms such as Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte in their battle to stop small Caribbean farmers getting preferential access to European markets.
Told local councils and states they cannot penalise companies for doing business with repressive regimes.
Supported multinationals' claims to patents, copyrights and trademarks
The WTO has presided over a collapse in raw material prices that is sinking the poorest countries further into debt and poverty. Its way of resolving trade disputes is to favour multinationals over poor communities, public health and the environment. The protests planned on 30 November will be a cry of fury against the rule of the mega-corporations and the governments that back them.
HUNDREDS of thousands of people will take part in the 30 November protests across the world. In Seattle itself there are plans for a monster march. Some trade unionists and labour activists hope to organise a walkout by students and some workers as well. Activists and campaigners from 31 countries have pledged to go to Seattle on the day.
A vast range of imaginative protests have been organised by environmentalists, socialists, trade unionists, women's groups, peace activists, artists and others. Protests are planned in Germany, Argentina, Switzerland, Colombia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, South Africa, France, the Czech Republic, Italy, Portugal and many other countries.
Facts on 'free' trade
The WTO has 134 member countries. Together they decide the rules that govern international trade. Founded in 1995, it is the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which was set up to fix trade rules after the Second World War. Once a rule is made all members have to obey.
In theory all member states take part in the WTO on an equal basis. In reality it is dominated by the 'Quad' - the US, the EU countries, Japan and Canada.
In previous negotiations key decisions were taken behind closed doors while Third World representatives were left in the coffee bar.
Countries enforce WTO decisions by imposing trade sanctions. The US has little to fear if a small country threatens it with sanctions. But the US can destroy an economy if the situation is reversed. It can also back up its demands with military threats.
The US has filed nearly a third of all complaints considered by the WTO and has won 90 percent of them.
Over the last 20 years the developing countries' share of global trade has halved.
March together against capitalism
IN BRITAIN it is not yet clear what form the protests on 30 November will take. Some of those involved in this summer's J18 Carnival Against Capitalism are discussing a similar event. Other groups have different ideas. Press articles and police briefings have tried to suggest that any protest will be the work of a crazed and violent minority. The Sunday Times claimed that 'anarchists are stockpiling illegal weapons worth thousands of pounds for a planned riot'. The police and the gutter press are trying to scare people away from protest and to smear any anti-WTO demonstration in advance.
The desire for protest shows that more and more people are outraged by a world where a few rule and the majority suffer. Socialist Worker urges all socialists, trade unions, students, campaigning groups and activists to march together against the WTO. We want the biggest possible protest against the capitalists who exploit us all.
People and Planet grow
PEOPLE AND Planet, an organisation of students active over issues like debt and environmental destruction, will hold its annual conference this weekend. Around 900 people attended last year and organisers hope that 1,200 will meet this time.
Heidi Bachram from People and Planet's support office told Socialist Worker, 'We are going from strength to strength. There are more people than ever who want to explore these issues and to look at the social, economic and political structures that underpin them. We have 80 groups in universities which can decide for themselves what campaigns they take up. Our three central campaigns discussed at the weekend will be Jubilee 2000 (the coalition against debt), the Footprints environmental campaign, and a push to get our universities to withdraw investment in arms firms and other unethical companies.'
People and Planet conference, Warwick University, near Coventry, Saturday 6 and Sunday 7 November. Benefit gig on the Friday. For details and to register phone 01865 245678.