Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to debate Bill C-2, formerly Bill C-23, and to talk about the free trade agreement with Colombia.
I would like to put some contextual form to the debate initially, in the sense of why it is we are authorizing a trade deal after the fact and why parliamentarians have not had the opportunity to discuss beforehand whether we want to pursue a free trade agreement with certain places rather than simply at the tail end of it having to put a rubber stamp on it, as the Conservative government and its co-conspirators in this deal, the Liberals, would like us to do.
If we are going to enter into free trade agreements with whomever across the globe, then what we ought to be doing in this House is actually deciding what the framework of those trade deals should be. The word “free” in free trade begins with the letter f, but it ought to be the a “fair” trade agreement, not a free trade agreement. The partners to it, whether it be a bilateral or multilateral agreement, should be equal partners. That includes those folks who work for a living, whether they be unionized or non-unionized, whether they be in the manufacturing sector, the service sector or in the agricultural sector. No matter where it is they work they should be seen to be equal partners in trade deals that will affect them whether or not they want the agreement.
We are seeing with these trade deals the effect on us as workers in this country. I spoke to this before. A StatsCan report talked about income disparity in this country and it is a disgrace. The report clearly showed since we signed the first free trade agreement a little over 20 years ago that our income is either stagnant or declining. Yet the previous Liberal government and now the present Conservative government tell us that free trade is good for all of us. I beg to differ.
Workers that I represented when I was involved in the Canadian auto workers and workers that I have the pleasure to represent in this place are testimony to the fact that it is the opposite. They are not better off. In fact in many cases they are not even equal to where they were as far back as 1985. If that is prosperity, to be stuck in 1985, then I really do not understand the meaning of prosperity.
Sure, there is a small percentage in this country, and it is less than one and a half per cent, the wealthy elite, who have done remarkably well. I suppose for them free trade is a wondrous thing. When it was sold to us as Canadians it was sold to us with the aspiration that it would be better for all of us. This meant that the standard of living for every man and woman in the working world of this country would increase. What we have seen is the opposite.
This brings me to this particular deal and what it really means. How important is it to our manufacturing sector, our agricultural sector and any other sector that the government is suggesting are really important and we need to ram this deal through. When we look at it, it is infinitesimally small. It does not mean to say that is not significant to some of those players. Of course it is.
There are markets elsewhere where we could enter into a trade deal that would be fair in nature because we would be seen as co-equals. We would look at it from the sense of saying to one another that our rules are basically the same; our human rights issues are basically on par; maybe their rules are better and we could improve ours; our labour laws and environmental standards are on par; and the freedom in both countries is about on par.
Yet we are going to enter into an agreement with Colombia rather than some other country because it has less and somehow we feel that that is a fair deal.
With respect to this deal, when we talk about human rights, the argument being brought forward is that things are getting better. That is marvellous. That is great for Colombians. We applaud the fact that it is getting better, but it is not yet good enough to enter into a trade deal.
To suggest that somehow allowing multinational corporations to come in and perhaps generate some wealth for themselves will enhance the human rights for those who live there is a specious argument at best and a falsehood at worse.
We had agreement in the previous session. We talked about an international human rights group going in to monitor and help bring them out. Even the president of Colombia, Mr. Uribe, who was here before us, admits they have work to do in the human rights field. They themselves say they are not there yet. If that is the case, if they have the understanding and have actually told us they have work to do, why do we not let them go about doing that work and then come back to us when they have finished, rather than trying to ram this through before the president's term expires in another month or so?
Of course, he cannot run again because their constitution has a two-term limit. He already tried to get an extension of the two-term limit to three and was denied by his own supreme court. Now he will basically have to retire and go into another line of business, whatever that happens to be.
I do not see why we should shove this through so that Mr. Uribe can hold a meeting, hoist a toast and say they have done what they said they were going to do without doing what he said they wanted to do. He said they wanted to ensure people were safe inside his country, paramilitary squads were not still out there and trade unionists could be safe and secure and not find themselves under threat and murdered.
It is astonishing for me, as someone who comes from the labour movement. I look back to leaders of my labour movement, going back to Bob White and Buzz Hargrove and before that to leaders like Walter Reuther of the UAW. Those folks would probably have been found in an alley with a bullet either between the eyes or behind the ear if they had been in Colombia.
Because of the things they stood for, the things they spoke about and what they did for their members, including their efforts to enhance the ability of their members to move up that socio-economic ladder and get freedom of speech, their efforts to allow them to collectively assemble and their efforts to allow them collective bargaining, all of those folks would have never lived to ripe old ages of retirement. They all would have been dead by now. That would be a great travesty.
In this land, as much as a lot of folks do not agree with the trade union leaders who I mentioned, we do it in a civil way. We express our opinions and we debate the merits of what we stand for on one side and what we stand for on the other. None of those trade union leaders ever felt under threat, albeit Walter Reuther back in the 1950s was a different issue.
However, things have progressed from those days to the point where those leaders do not feel under threat, including the president of the CLC, Ken Georgetti, who is not afraid to walk across this land and talk about trade unionism, human rights, the collective bargaining process and the right to organize. The Supreme Court of Canada has said folks have that right under the laws of this land. It is an important fundamental right that we do not see in Colombia. As long as trade union leaders in Colombia feel under threat and duress, my sense is that this is not an agreement we need to go forward with.
What are we doing in Colombia? What is the benefit for us in Colombia? There is no great benefit for a free trade agreement with Colombia. Certainly, there are some power elites in Colombia who truly want an agreement with us because it sends out a signal to the broader world that they should come back to the table to enter into negotiations with Colombia. The EU has walked away. It threw its hands up and said it was going to stop negotiations and was no longer interested in talking until Colombia cleaned up its own house.
As a member of the G8 and the G20, we see our partners in that club saying it is time to let the Colombians take care of their internal issues and allow them time to ensure their population is safe, their human rights record is on the upswing and at a level where trade unionists no longer fear for their lives and indigenous people no longer feel as if they are going to be forced off their land, allow them time to ensure the country has actually stabilized itself.
It is not to take away from the work that has already been done. There is no question that we are seeing a decline in the violence in Colombia from where it was 10 or 15 years ago. However, it is still not at a place where we should be in trade negotiations, not until it finds itself stabilized.
It is for them to do that, not for us to say we will send them a trade deal, we will send them some of our products and we will let some of our companies go into their country, and somehow that will stabilize their country. Governments stabilize countries by a set of rules, by the understanding of their populations that they respect those rules, and at the moment, that is not happening. The statistics clearly point to that.
Some of my colleagues will point out that there are not paramilitary death squads anymore; they are really narco-gangs. Yesterday's narco-gangs are tomorrow's paramilitaries, and vice versa. They are interchangeable. They go back and forth across that very, very blurry line. There is no question there are some narco-gangs in Colombia. No one disputes that, but no one can suggest that somehow they have demilitarized every paramilitary group in Colombia. That is not the case. The evidence shows it is not the case and we have to accept the fact that it is true.
In the end, if we know that to be true, then we know we cannot get sustainability in Colombia when it comes to human rights, the right to collective bargaining, the right to collective assembly and the freedom and democracy that we know and share here. That is why our friends in the club of G8 and G20 have said no to the Colombians this time, not no to them on a permanent basis.
But I think that is what the House needs to know about what the New Democrats are saying. We are not saying no to Colombia forever. In fact, we are saying yes to Colombia. We want to help it, to help get it back up on its feet. We will allow it and help it with those institutions that it needs to form.
I would suggest to the government that what we ought to enter into with Colombia is to help them strengthen their government organizations, their court systems, so that they can indeed move forward, as we did years ago. We had to develop ours and strengthen them, and eventually the rule of law in a free and democratic society likes ours, where we respect it as individuals, will then be in Colombia as well. Then we become co-equal partners. Then we can enter into trade. Trade should never be measured by simply dollars and cents. It is about those who are affected on both sides of that ledger, which means workers here and indeed workers in Colombia.
In the agricultural sector, we see what happens to indigenous farmers when multinational organizations in the agriculture sector come in. When we talked to our friends in the campesina movement, they told us they have been pushed off the land. Yet we talk about how to help folks who perhaps are not eating as well as they should because there is not enough nourishment, not enough sustenance, because we needs folks on the land to actually grow food that can be consumed by those who live there. When people have to buy food from abroad, they are at the mercy of the prices in the world market, which means that if they are poor already, they become not only poorer, but hungry.
We need to make sure that all of those factors are in play, that indeed none of the things we see happening today are happening anymore. It will not be an idyllic society. It will not be a perfectly peaceful place; nowhere is. In this country we find from time to time folks get annoyed at things that happen. We have demonstrations. Sometimes those demonstrations lead to the odd window getting broken. That is what we would like to see in Colombia: a time when demonstrations result in no more than a broken window rather than a bullet behind someone's ear. Then we will know they have got to a place where we can put our hand out and invite them to talk about trade; that will be the time we can sit down and talk about the actual trade negotiations.
My friends will talk about its being an addendum to the back of the agreement with labour laws, environment laws and the fact that we could pay a fine if there are things going on, or we could make a complaint and a fine would be charged against us.
When I wrote collective agreements in the bargaining that I did over a number of years, if we were serious about what we meant about something, we did not write it off the agreement. It used to be called “letters off the agreement”, which for the most part used to be hidden. Those are things we did not tell the folks we represented. We gave them the collective agreement and we kept the letters off to the side. That is why we did that, because those were in the so-called clandestine semi-agreement between us and the employer. In my view, those letters at the back of the agreement are what that is about. It is about a certain group of folks saying that they know they are there and they know they can exercise them, but the majority of folks will not.
When people actually find themselves in a situation where they should use them, they do not even know they are there to try to exact a price that folks should pay as far as the fine is concerned, which I find ludicrous, to be honest. I know my fellow New Democratic colleague has coined the term “kill a trade unionist, pay a fine”. It seems rather cruel when we hear it out loud, but that is a reality. That is clearly what this piece of the agreement talks about.
It does not talk about how to stop it. It does not talk about setting up fundamental rights and freedoms for trade union leaders to actually go about doing what we consider to be legitimate, which is to organize workers if they choose to be organized, collectively bargain for them because that is what they have asked to be done, represent them in the bargaining process and, indeed, the grievance process and from time to time engage Parliament in advancing the rights of workers, which it believes workers are asking it to do.
In Colombia, we do not see that. In fact, my friends in the CUT, which is the largest trade union movement in Colombia, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting over the years, tell me this is not a good deal for workers. If Colombian workers are telling us it is not a good deal for workers, why is it we are so pious to believe that we can tell them it is, it will be good for them?
It reminds me of the 1985 debate on free trade, to be honest: “This will be good for you”. The president of my union, unfortunately, told General Motors during bargaining in 1996, “You are going to eat Pablum because I am feeding it to you because you are going to like it”. It turned out they did not like it that much and they put us on strike for a long period of time. The bottom line is that because we think it is good for them does not make it necessarily so. In fact, I would suggest it is not.
What we should be doing is listening to the workers in the fields, factories and cities in Colombia who are saying, “No thank you. Thank you very much for thinking about us. Thank you very much for telling our government that it needs to do better with human rights. Thank you very much for saying you want to make sure I am protected. We appreciate that. We want you to continue that, but we don't want this deal at this moment”.
They are not saying they do not want a deal. They are saying not right now. We should respect that. We should respect the fact that the citizens and workers of Colombia are saying to us, “Thank you, but not right now”. To suggest that we know better than they do is not only insulting to them but it is quite delusional for us.
We are entering into a pact with whom? An elite? Because the government says it will be good for workers? We saw the results here and I mentioned them earlier. If we ask workers in this country if they are better off today, Statistics Canada says unequivocally no. It did not work for ordinary Canadians who toil across this land.
The proof is in the pudding. People always ask where the proof is. The proof is in the report. The Statistics Canada report clearly shows how we have done as working men and women across this country. We did not prosper. A very few at the top did. By and large, 80% of us did not. Therefore, why are we foisting this deal on Colombians and telling them they will be better off?
It reminds me of what we said with regard to the North American Free Trade Agreement when Mexico was brought in. We said it would be better for them. I would challenge anybody to go across the maquiladora zone and ask how people are making out. They are worried about losing their jobs to China, and yet they have the lowest wage rates in North America. Their wage rates do not sustain them in the Mexican economy. Yet they were supposed to be better off.
Across the globe, when it comes to free trade instead of fair trade, and I stress the word “fair” trade, which has in it many other pieces that this free trade agreement does not, what we need to be doing is saying no to this, respecting Colombian workers' wishes, respecting the citizens of Colombia who say no, taking a step back and telling them that when they are ready, when they decide it is in their best interests, the workers and citizens of Colombia should tell us that they want to sit down and negotiate a fair trade agreement.