Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to rise in the House to take part in such a critical debate, not just about the Canada-Panama free trade agreement but about how we move forward as a country, our relationships at the international level and how we see our role as promoters of trade and growing relationships within the Americas.
However, as I stand here, I am also very proud to be a member of a party that has stood for the kind of trade that prioritizes the concept of fairness, fair trade, a party that reaffirms its vision for a fair trade policy that puts the pursuit of social justice, strong public sector social programs and the elimination of poverty at the heart of an effective trade strategy.
In fact, when we hear Canada speak out at the international level, we hear of the concepts of mutual growth and improvement of living conditions. However, when we look at the specifics of the kinds of trade agreements that the government is promoting, we see an approach that strays from those kinds of ideas, certainly from the values that we in the NDP hold dear and go against the idea of wanting to contribute to the benefit of people in these countries, not just corporations or certain people, but people in general. That is the question in the House when it comes to Bill C-46, the Canada-Panama free trade agreement.
As my colleagues have expressed in the House, we have grave concerns that this bill has come forward in a hurried fashion, with a real desire by the government to pass it without the in-depth examination of what might be challenging pieces. Certainly there has been critical debate at committee, but there are some key points that I am sure many Canadians would be shocked to find out the government is trying to push through. They require more debate. Members deserve a chance to sit down and ask whether this really is what Canada wants to be promoting on the international stage.
We have heard much talk about the idea that this trade agreement would exacerbate the inequalities in Panama, that it would allow Canadian companies and Canada to be part of scenarios where labour rights are disrespected and abused or environmental rights are disregarded. We have heard that the fact that there are side agreements on labour co-operation and the environment is supposed to deal with these concerns and dynamics that we in the NDP think such a trade agreement would foster in a country like Panama.
The existence of such side agreements is simply not what is going to prevent such abuses from taking place or what is going to prevent such trade agreements from truly looking at how trade could make Panamanians and Canadians better off. There are a couple of reasons why NDP members feel the side agreements and Bill C-46 are inadequate in trying to reach the point of truly contributing to the well-being of Panama and Canadians.
At committee, compelling testimony was heard from witnesses regarding, for example, the tax haven situation in the Republic of Panama as well as its poor record of labour rights. It was noted that Panama has refused to sign a tax information exchange agreement, something that is troubling considering the large amount of money laundering in Panama, including money from drug trafficking.
Panama's complete lack of taxation transparency has led to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development to label the nation a tax haven. It has been referenced that a double taxation agreement would somehow resolve such a concern, but the double taxation agreement only tracks legal income while a tax information exchange agreement would track all income, including that made through illegal means.
The tax haven situation in Panama, as witnesses expressed in committee, is not improving conditions under the current government in Panama. A trade agreement with Canada would only worsen the problem and could cause harm to both Panama and Canada.
Another critical area a side agreement would not deal with and the source of such concern would be in the area of labour and the respect of labour rights. It is a tenet of who we are as a democracy and as a country that has believed that people's well-being depends on their freedom to organize, on their ability to be part of unions and on their ability as working people to fight for a decent wage, to fight for proper health and safety and to fight for that dignity that we would all hope for in any country around the world.
However, we recognize that these rights are not respected in Panama the way we respect them in Canada.
Another major issue is the status of labour rights in Panama and the complete failure of this trade agreement to ensure that these rights are not denied to Panamanian workers as they have been in the past.
When Teresa Healy of the Canadian Labour Congress spoke to the parliamentary committee regarding the agreement on labour co-operation, she testified that while the International Labour Organization's core labour standards are invoked, Bill C-46 is still weaker than it should be. As well, she pointed out the current Panamanian government has increasingly been harsh on labour unions and workers, especially in recent years.
It was noted, for example, that over the last few years a number of measures have come into play that have exacerbated the wealth inequalities in a country like Panama. While recording relatively high growth rates, it is the second most unequal society in the region. Forty per cent of the population is poor; 27% is extremely poor; and the rate of extreme poverty is particularly acute in indigenous populations. The country has endured extensive structural adjustment, liberalization and privatization which has not translated into economic benefits for the population.
In response to the international perception that Panamanian labour laws were rigid and a disincentive to foreign investment, President Martinelli announced unilateral changes to the labour law in the summer of 2010. The law ended environmental impact studies on projects deemed to be of social interest. It banned mandatory dues collections from workers. It allowed employers to fire striking workers and replace them with strikebreakers. It criminalized street blockades and it protected police from prosecution.
These are the kinds of measures that we are in fact not just approving of by continuing to approach this trade agreement as a positive sign and looking to side agreements as though they were going to put a stop to such an agenda put forward in Panama. Canadians would not want to think, would not want to know that we are complicit in encouraging what is fundamentally an attack on people's right to organize and people's right to speak out and fight for a decent living.
The severity of this attack on labour rights seen in Panama has been met with strikes and demonstrations. The police have been exceedingly harsh in their response and that was just this past summer. At least six people were killed; protestors were seriously injured and many were blinded by tear gas and police violence. Some 300 trade union leaders were detained before the president withdrew the labour provisions and called for a national dialogue of moderate trade union leaders and business leaders.
We are pointing out that a side agreement on labour co-operation, as it is termed, is in no way sufficient and certainly does not make a strong statement by Canada that such action is unconscionable.
The NDP is saying trade agreements must respect the tenets of fairness, but also must respect the values that we hold dear as Canadians, whether it be in terms of labour rights, transparency or on the environment. Canadians would demand nothing less.