Six years ago this week, at least 32 people died in Bagua, Peru, during a protest against regulations the government put in place to comply with the recently inked United States-Peru Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Government forces opened fire on thousands of indigenous people who had blocked a highway, attempting to prevent extractive companies from taking advantage of new rules that made it easier to exploit the Amazon.
This tragedy throws into stark relief what is at stake during the current trade debate, and emphasizes who these trade deals really benefit. Chilling cables from the U.S. embassy in Peru reveal that U.S. officials were more concerned about cementing the FTA than the safety and self-determination of the Peruvian people.
The promises made during the Peru FTA debate are the same ones being made as the House prepares to debate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—the U.S. government claimed the deal would improve labor rights and environmental standards. However, in reality, the Peruvian government has been weakening social protections in the last six years, particularly workers’ rights.
In Peru's main export sectors, including agriculture and garments, employers take advantage of "special employment contracts" that allow for short-term contracts and reduced benefits. These arrangements push workers into poverty and make it virtually impossible to organize for better conditions. Labor relations have entered a historic low, with national strikes being held almost every week in key public and private sectors and workers facing harassment and retaliation for exercising their rights.
The Peruvian government has proposed a series of labor reforms— paquetazos —that reduce working conditions and benefits , allow companies to conduct mass layoffs, and weaken health and safety regulations. Some have been stalled only after mass protests, but others remain on the books—including a regulation that lets companies skirt discrimination prohibitions and target trade unionists, pregnant women, workers suffering from occupational safety and health illnesses, and older workers for dismissal.
The extractive industry not only is ignoring community consultation and causing massive environmental devastation, it also is prompting waves of labor migration, promoting precarious, unsafe working conditions and cracking down on workers who try to fight back. Mineworkers recently conducted a three-day work stoppage, and workers report that hundreds now have received notices of dismissal for exercising the right to strike.
Labor rights in Peru have decayed since the FTA went into effect. Workers struggle with crushing poverty and an inability to organize for a fair share of the wealth created by increased exports, which is now in the hands of employers. Environmental advocates have been put down with force, and the needs of communities have been ignored in favor of devastating extractive practices. The people have suffered, but corporations have profited handsomely—which in the end is really what these deals are about. There is no reason to expect different results this time around.
Get involved. Learn more about the Fast Track process used to advance bad trade deals and sign a petition here .