In a global market, where multinational corporations compete on price and cost cutting, the cheapest places on earth for natural resources or labour are precisely those nations which place no value on democracy, human rights or environmental protection.
Take Burma for example, ruled by one of the most repressive and barbaric regimes anywhere in the world - which have ignored free democratic elections and imprisoned the victor, the heroic Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet what is a human rights disaster for its citizens is regarded as an investment opportunity by the big energy corporations. The Unocal Corporation of California and the French oil company Total have formed a joint venture with the military dictators of Burma to extract gas from under the sea, some 40 miles off the coast. To make sure the pipeline keeps pumping revenue back into Burma for its cash-starved regime, the military has destroyed entire villages, seized property and attacked, raped and tortured innocent villagers, many of whom have been forced to labour as slaves on the pipeline. Of course that may not be what the oil companies want, but they need to understand the consequences of doing business with a dictatorship.
I isn't just oil, and it's not just Burma. The principle of 'free' trade applies to every other product or commodity, no matter how low wages are driven, how spoiled the environment, and how crushed the rights of workers. There is always some place in the world a little worse off, a little riper for exploitation.
The 'free market' conjures up fuzzy notions of free and equal individuals exchanging hand-made shoes for homegrown geese in a village square. This bucolic picture carries with it a notion that a job is just an individual contract between equals - but it hasn't been like that. Colin Hines from the International Forum on Globalisation reports that since NAFTA, around 2,000 factories have moved from the USA to operate in the border region in Mexico, virtually unhindered by lax environmental and labour regulations. NAFTA is the North American Free Trade Agreement - or, as some campaigners put it, Not Another Fucking Trade Association - and it has relaxed regulations to a dangerous extent. The environmental repercussions of more than 300 companies opening up works on the Mexican border with Texas are appalling. As many as 400,000 people live there without sufficient housing, running water, sewerage, pavements or electricity. An open canal carries 55 million gallons of raw sewage for 17 miles, alongside the Rio Grande, polluting drinking water wells and the river itself.
Free trade is one of the greatest deceptions. Ask yourself whether the market is really free, and free for whom or for what. The truth is that free trade was originally about the freedom of communities to trade equally with each other. It was never intended to be what it is today - a licence for the big, the powerful and the rich to ride roughshod over people who have no choice about whether they trade or not.
Blind World Government
The problem is that we have a world trading system that is blind to this kind of injustice, presided over by the World Trade Organisation, the ubiquitous WTO. As the powers of governments shrink, this system acts as our new unelected, uncontrollable world government. The WTO, and the group of unelected trade officials who run it, is now effectively the world's highest court, with the right to overturn local laws or safety regulations wherever they say it interferes with free trade.
The world trading system is world government by default and it is also blind government. It looks at the bottom line, but can't see anything else. It can recognise profits and losses, but it deliberately turns its face away from human rights, child labour, or keeping the environment viable for future generations. It is government without a heart, and without a heart you find the creativity of the human spirit starts to dwindle too.
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