The United States is currently negotiating a new International Services Agreement called the Trade in Services Agreement, or TISA. At the start of 2012, a number of World Trade Organization (WTO) member states, including the European Union, formed a group called the “Really Good Friends of Services” or RGF (and yes, that is really what they named themselves), with the purpose of drafting a trade agreement that would further liberalize trade and investment in services and expand regulatory disciplines on services sectors.
However, like past services agreements (such as the GATS), the TISA is not about tariffs. Rather, a large part of this agreement will be about removing what are called “regulatory barriers to trade,” which is another way of saying that this agreement could essentially change the regulation of many public and commercial services. Instead of benefiting the public interest, this agreement seems positioned to serve the interests of private, for-profit corporations.
The term “services” refers to a wide range of economic activities such as construction, medicine, education, retail, e-commerce, telecommunications and financial services, among others. Many workers in these sectors rely on unions to represent them and advocate for things like fair wages and job safety. With growth in the services sector continuing at unprecedented levels, this category has become an increasingly important priority in global trade flows, and the direction of trade obligations is this area is critical. The group of countries currently negotiating TISA accounted for nearly 70% of world trade in services in 2012.
Although increasing services trade flows can create economic advantages, it must be done right if it is going to benefit working families and not just global corporations. Too often trade deals are simply aimed at deregulation and don’t give adequate thought to why regulations are necessary in the first place. AFL-CIO Trade Policy Specialist Celeste Drake gave a presentation in 2013 at the annual WTO public forum about how TISA, if it is simply a deregulation tool, could put immigration reform and public transit programs at risk.
In recent decades, the United States has negotiated trade agreements that largely benefited corporate power at the expense of working people. The guiding question for new trade agreements that work for workers must be: will these trade rules promote decent work and improve standards of living? Too often in past trade agreements that answer has been no.
It is imperative that governments retain their ability to regulate in the public interest on important economic and social issues like environmental protection, public health, financial stability and protections for workers and consumers.
The TISA negotiations largely have been kept secret, and apart from occasional leaked documents, little is known about the specific points in the agreement. The TISA negotiations should be open to the public and based on well-researched impact data. We cannot afford an agreement that hurts working people around the world and contributes to growing income inequality.
Public Services International (PSI), the global union federation for public-sector workers, is leading the way in keeping tabs on this agreement and researching its potential impacts. You can get additional information about the TISA from PSI’s website. PSI is hosting a Global Trade Summit in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 16, 2014, to discuss the impacts of trade on public servants, and the AFL-CIO is participating. Check back here for more information after the summit.