World Trade Organization Wants To Control "Services"

The events of September 11 have taken over the media spotlight from the movement against corporate-led globalization, which had previously been on the minds of governments, corporations, and social and labor movements alike.

But while the world mourns, the institutions of global capital have not slept. The World Trade Organization is moving forward with preparations for its next Ministerial meeting in the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar, November 9-13.

Many issues remain unresolved since the WTO's last Ministerial meeting in Seattle in November 1999, when a welcoming committee of unionists, environmentalists, and human rights activists sent the WTO packing. On the agenda is a set of rules and agreements being negotiated within the WTO: the General Agreement on Trade in Services, or GATS.

WHAT TO KNOW

GATS is a collection of 18 agreements set up to regulate the international trade in services. The broad term "services" covers everything from food service and hospitality to such vital public necessities as health care, police, firefighters, waste collection, water, sewage, utilities, and transportation.

Banking is also included, and the influence of multinational corporations representing this sector of the economy has been felt on GATS talks since the beginning. Says Director of the WTO's Services Division David Hartridge: "Without the enormous pressure generated by the American financial services sector, particularly companies like American Express and Citicorp, there would have been no services agreement."

Behind the push to hammer out GATS are such powerful lobbying groups as the U.S. Coalition of Service Industries, with members such as AOL Time-Warner, AT&T, Enron, Citigroup, and UPS. USCSI takes major credit for setting the GATS agenda. It's easy to see why such companies are hot to finalize GATS implementation. About 60 percent of the global economy is in the service sector, and services account for about 70 percent of the domestic U.S. economy. Health care and education are worth about $3.5 trillion and $2 trillion on a global scale, respectively.

These essential services, and others such as water, waste collection, postal services, and public transit, are often administered by state, local, and federal governments which are responsible to representatives elected by citizens. If fully implemented, GATS would ensure that decision-making about these potentially lucrative services would reside instead with non-accountable WTO bureaucrats and the corporations they serve.

As it currently stands, GATS is a contradictory hodgepodge, with not all service sectors in all member countries covered. The purpose of the current round of negotiations is to extend GATS to cover all sectors.

SERVICE = ALMOST ANYTHING

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As defined by the WTO, a service is "anything you can't drop on your foot." And while GATS specifically excludes services provided "in the exercise of government authority," the agreement includes those public services which are already delivered commercially or in competition with the private sector. Thus public schools (which "compete" with private schools), for-profit prisons, and public health services "in competition" with HMOs are all fair game under GATS.

Central to GATS is the surrender of national sovereignty and democracy to the interests of transnational corporations. Its provisions are a veritable corporate wish-list, including:

  • Unrestricted, guaranteed access for all corporate service providers to domestic markets in all service sectors in all member states.

  • Most favored nation status, which would force member nations to disregard the labor, environmental, or human rights records of service providers from other member nations.

  • The removal of such "barriers to trade" as government subsidies to domestic service providers in fields such as public works, municipal services, and social programs. Curiously, the military and defense sectors are left off the list of services covered by GATS, so the huge expenditures governments shower on defense contractors are not threatened.

  • "Transparency" for any proposed government regulations that would potentially affect services. What this means in practice is that governments would be forced to consult with WTO bureaucrats before implementing policies that would potentially affect GATS.

U.S. LOBBYISTS

Granting corporations the opportunity to shove their fingers into the pies of health care, municipal services, and education means that disasters like California's experiment with utility privatization would become the norm. Last year's successful battle by workers and citizens against the privatization of Bolivia's water supply would be virtually impossible under a fully operational GATS.

WTO chief Michael Moore has delivered ultimatums to member states about the necessity of publicly and vigorously defending GATS against the potential of citizens' campaigns. But transnational corporations and their politician-supporters are assuming that trade issues are safely out of the public eye for now. A forceful and visible organized opposition is necessary to shatter their illusions.