Trade justice is a campaign by non-governmental organisations, plus efforts by other actors, to change the rules and practices of world trade in order to promote fairness. These organizations include consumer groups, trade unions, faith groups, aid agencies and environmental groups.
The organizations campaigning for trade justice posit this concept in opposition to free trade, the advocates of which often also claim pro-poor outcomes. Trade justice advocates argue that truly free trade does not and will never exist, and that governmental policies on trade should be in the public interest, rather than the interest of wealthy entities who try to influence trade negotiation to benefit their individual interests. Advocates of trade justice argue that growing inequity and serious gaps in social justice, and the global export of terrorism, are symptoms of an economic system that permits harms to be exported to other countries, while importing their goods. They point to extinction, deforestation, social unrest, as consequences of globalisation, and in particular of an “unfair” globalisation. In the past, the responses sought by critics of the international trade system included various penalties on “unfair” goods. This argument generally made little headway against the long-term movement towards free trade; imposition of penalties for “dumping” was sometimes motivated by domestic political reasons such as the United States imposition of steel tariffs in 2001).
Today, the trade justice movement concentrates more on the abolition of agricultural subsidies and dumping, and to a much lesser extent on offsetting penalties on “unfair” goods. Indeed, although there are many who are still critical of free trade in general, there is a trend towards campaigning against what is seen as hypocrisy by developed countries in using protectionism against the poorest countries, especially in agricultural products, while requiring them to leave their own producers without protection.
Trade justice movement
The Trade Justice Movement in the UK was the first formal coalition of groups to use the term “trade justice” (partly because in the UK, “fair trade” usually refers to Fairtrade certification and is a consumer model of change rather than an overtly political movement calling for government action). The term trade justice has been widely adopted internationally by campaign groups, for example by the over 100 national platforms of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty where it is one of the four main demands. In many countries “fair trade” is used as well as or instead of “trade justice”.
The global institutions that are most often targeted in trade justice campaigns against the alleged injustices of the current international trade system are the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB). Campaigners also lobby their own governments with the intention of creating pressure on them to prioritise poverty reduction when making international trade rules. In trading blocs such as the European Union (EU), the campaigns seek to influence policy across a number of member state governments.
“Trade Justice” and “Fair Trade” were originally used by those supporting social justice and the alleviation of the intense poverty found in many developing nations. They contrasted “fair trade” with ‘unfair’ international trade practices. It is associated particularly with labour unions and environmentalists, in their criticism of disparities between the protections for capital versus those for labour and the environment. The use of the term has expanded beyond campaigns to reform current trading practices, and the major institutions such as the World Trade Organization which embody them. Now it has become a movement to allow consumers to choose not to participate in these practices. Fairtrade labelling or “Fairtrade certification” allows consumers to identify goods especially commodities such as coffee, that meet certain agreed standards of fairness.
Academics such as argue that the insertion of a constructive ambiguity such as valuing innovation in bilateral trade agreements (and then according normative and ongoing lobbying power to such textual negotiating truces by formally linking them with non-violation nullification of benefits provisions) may undermine democratic sovereignty with regard to construction of domestic policy, particularly in areas such as the environment and public health. This view is strenuously contested by trade law officials and many domestic policy makers.
“The mostly widely referred to demand of trade justice campaigners is access to the markets of developed countries or rich countries. When developing countries export to developed country markets, they often face tariff barriers that can be as much as four times higher than those encountered by developed countries. Poverty claims that those barriers cost poor countries $100 billion a year – twice as much as they receive in aid.”
Most trade justice campaigners focus in some way on the agricultural subsidies of rich countries that make it difficult for farmers in poor countries to compete. For example, they argue that the European Union’s agricultural export subsidies encourage overproduction of goods such as tomatoes or sugar, which are then sold cheaply or ‘dumped’ in poor countries. Local farmers cannot sell their goods as cheaply and go out of business.
The campaign points to the treatment of agriculture at the WTO, which has institutionalised these injustices. In the few instances where developing countries have used the complex and expensive WTO process to declare subsidies (e.g. US cotton subsidies) excessive, developed countries ignore these rulings, which the WTO itself does not enforce. Recently rich countries have begun to talk about cutting export subsidies, but they often demand greater access to poor country markets in return.
The term “trade justice” emphasizes that even if the playing field were level, instead of tilted against developing countries, the poorest developing countries in particular would still struggle to gain from trade if forced to trade under free trade terms. This is because of their overwhelming lack of competitiveness – poor countries do not have huge stocks of exports waiting to be shipped to rich countries, instead most small farmers want to be able to sell their goods locally.
- Corporate development
- Dumping (pricing policy)
- Economic development
- Fair trade
- International development
- Social development
- Sociocultural evolution
- Trade and development
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