August 9, 2023
From The Red Phoenix

On the weekend of July 29–30, members of the John Reed Division of the American Party of Labor attended the Peoples’ Summit against APEC in Seattle, WA. The Peoples’ Summit was organized by the Pacific Northwest People Over Profit Coalition, of which the APL is a sponsoring member. The goal of the Summit was to oppose the APEC Ministerial meetings held in Seattle by uplifting the voices of migrants, workers, and women.

The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, or APEC, is a series of meetings of trade ministers, corporate lobbyists, heads of state, and CEOs where the groundwork for free trade agreements is set. Each year, a different “member economy” of APEC hosts the meetings, and this year the host is the US. These meetings are closed-door, meaning the only press about the goings-on of the meetings comes from APEC itself. APEC was founded in 1989 with the mission of “lowering barriers for free trade”—in other words, implementing neoliberal policies that give corporations increased access to the markets of the Asia Pacific region. Since then, the imperial powers of APEC have not held back from exploiting the workers of nations such as Peru, the Philippines, and Indonesia. 

As the US hosts the APEC meetings this year, a new free trade agreement is being written and negotiated: the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, or IPEF. Little has been published pertaining to the details of this “framework.” This is largely due to the confidentiality rules of the negotiation period, in which even members of the US Congress are excluded. IPEF would impact roughly 40% of the global population if passed, yet a very small handful of ruling class representatives are involved in the decision making process. The undemocratic nature of IPEF makes it easy for corporations to codify deregulation and to skirt environmental laws of member countries. The millions of workers affected by IPEF policies have no say in the negotiations by design. 

Previous free trade agreements born out of APEC have led to the creation of “Special Economic Zones,” which are areas of countries designed specifically to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). Special Economic Zones often lack labor rights and environmental regulations, and are considered to have some of the harshest working conditions globally. Examples of Special Economic Zones are maquiladoras set up in Mexico by mostly American corporations and the over 400 Philippine Economic Zones (ecozones), many of which are former US military bases. Special Economic Zones have widely been criticized for their unsafe working conditions, low pay, and tax incentives for corporations to continue investing in them. 

“Lowering barriers for free trade” often leads to trade agreements which include the expansion of Special Economic Zones. Special Economic Zones are just one example of the indirect material results of APEC meetings. The US publicly touts leading foreign direct investment in the Indo-Pacific region, with American corporations leading the charge for cheap exports into the region. “U.S. foreign direct investment in the region totaled more than $969 billion in 2020 and has nearly doubled in the last decade, and we are the leading exporter of services to the region, helping fuel regional growth,” reads a statement released by the White House last year for the launch of IPEF. Contrary to the positive-sounding language of the White House statement, unequal trade agreements that allow for increased exportation of American multinational corporations’ goods have had disastrous effects for the domestic industries of economies in the Asia Pacific. For example, the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) of 2007 pushed South Korean healthcare towards privatization due to new terms regarding the import of American pharmaceuticals. The KORUS FTA introduced increased “intellectual property rights” to big pharmaceutical corporations, increasing patent protections on medications, and preventing production of cheaper, generic medications. The terms of KORUS FTA also “give stakeholders a meaningful opportunity to participate in the development of rules and regulations in the pharmaceutical sector” (United States International Trade Commission Report, p. 119), with those “stakeholders” being American pharmaceutical companies, not South Korean healthcare professionals or patients. The result of these provisions is that South Korean prescription drug prices have tripled since the passing of KORUS FTA. This is no surprise, as the United States International Trade Commission Report admits that pharmaceutical companies will have a say in setting the prices of drugs—not just the South Korean government, which supposedly runs a nationalized healthcare system: 

“With respect to transparency, the chapter provisions would require both parties to ensure that their laws, regulations, and general procedures related to pricing, reimbursement, and regulation are promptly published or otherwise made available so that interested persons and the other party may become familiar with them. Further, each party would be required to publish in advance any such measures it proposes to adopt and provide interested persons and the other party a reasonable opportunity to comment on them and to have their comments taken into account in the final regulations. The transparency provisions would also require each party’s central government health authorities to have procedures in place, within a reasonable and specified time, to allow consideration of all formal requests for pricing and reimbursement of pharmaceutical products and medical devices, to disclose to applicants all rules and criteria used to determine their pricing or reimbursement, and to provide applicants with detailed written information regarding the basis for their determinations. Further, the authorities are to afford applicants meaningful opportunities to comment at relevant points in the pricing and reimbursement decision-making processes; to make all reimbursement decision-making bodies open to all stakeholders, including manufacturers of both innovative (patented) and generic products; and to establish an independent review process that may be invoked at the request of an applicant directly affected by a reimbursement decision or recommendation.”

KORUS FTA brought economic relations between the US and South Korea closer than ever before, bringing the economy of South Korea in line with neoliberal principles and US strategic interest. Following the KORUS FTA, South Korea promotes pledges in agreement with US goals for imperialist domination over the whole region. Now, when the US advocates for deregulation and increased intellectual property rights in APEC, South Korea is on board, supporting US hegemony.

On Saturday, July 29, the Pacific Northwest People Over Profit Coalition hosted a counter-summit, protesting the APEC ministerial meetings where pledges of liberalization and privatization are made by trade ministers. The counter-summit included speeches by the International Migrants Alliance and the International Women’s Alliance, with a full schedule of workshops to attend, mostly from groups organizing for worker, women, and migrant rights. A common theme throughout the counter-summit was the material conditions of workers in nations on the unfavorable end of free trade agreements—the largest mass of people APEC affects. Policies leading to forced migration were discussed in some workshops, with a focus on the experience of those who have been forcibly displaced. One of APEC’s and IPEF’s alleged priorities is bringing women into the economy (IPEF’s Upskilling Initiative). According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, “Fourteen U.S. companies –Amazon Web Services, American Tower, Apple, Cisco, Dell, Edelman, Google, HP, IBM, Mastercard, Microsoft, PayPal, Salesforce, and Visa –will each provide 500,000 or more upskilling opportunities that use digital tools for women and girls in IPEF emerging economies and middle-income partners by 2032.”  The history of the free trade agreements that come out of APEC, and the history of the companies listed shows that in reality, American multinational corporations are looking to further capitalize on and exploit the women of Southeast Asia. As free trade agreements deregulate labor and environmental outputs globally, more women will be subject to harsh working conditions, low wages, and climate change-induced disasters. The trade ministers of APEC and the policies of IPEF are working to proletarianize the women currently not generating profits for the capitalist class, treating women (more aptly, their labor power) as another commodity to be bought and sold.

The official APEC statements from the US ministerial meetings and the language of official US government reports obscure the true nature of American trade dealings in the Asia Pacific, which the Peoples’ Summit carefully uncovered by focusing on the workers most affected. The Peoples’ Summit also provided analysis as to the inter-imperialist rivalries playing out in the Asia Pacific—the United States and China are both APEC member economies. Rapid militarization is underway in the whole region as the imperialist powers try to gain control of more and more markets. The United States has a clear military advantage in the region, with bases creeping closer to China and more being built each year. In early 2023, the governments of the United States and the Philippines came to an agreement which allows for the building of nine more US military bases in the Philippines. China’s military influence is also growing in the region, with a reactive military expansion into the South China Sea, just west of the Philippines. These military tensions will only increase with the passage of IPEF, a trade framework designed specifically to exclude China and allow for more US control over economies in the Asia Pacific, over which China is gaining a larger influence.

The anti-imperialist presentations of the Peoples’ Summit covered the impacts of liberalization, deregulation, and militarization on the international working class. While the presentations of the summit were very informative and connected to the struggles of the working class here in the United States, there was also space to discuss American anti-imperialist organizing and next steps. Eni Lestari, Chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance, discussed with the audience of the Peoples’ Summit how they could support the migrants in their economic and political struggles. “That’s the reason why IMA takes it seriously, to study global capitalism. Because that’s the only way for us to understand the root causes of our suffering. The next question is what to do. One, within the migrants platform, we have to fight like the workers: step by step… Maybe for you all, you want to save migrants and refugees. But from the eyes of migrants, it is not about rescuing them from all these conditions. Maybe just a little relief, because their intention is to earn money so they can send money back home. So if you ‘rescue’ them and send them back home, you actually fail them to get their target, to get livelihood… So very important to communicate, ‘How do you want us to help?’ If they just need water, maybe that’s the problem, help them with water. But beyond that I think what as a community, as a movement can do is really expose the system,” Lestari said.

An issue facing migrant workers is contractualization, or “temporary” work. When migrants are forced to leave their home countries due to internal capitalist crises and their governments’ commodification of workers on the global market, they are often kept in temporary contractual worker status overseas. This status, coupled with poor working conditions, makes it extremely difficult for migrant workers to get help or access resources supposedly designed to help them. “The restrictions imposed on temporary migrant statuses create a situation where many easily fall out of status, sometimes despite their best efforts to stay within the restrictions of their visa,” IMA wrote in a submission to the UN Secretary-General on Migrants’ Human Rights Conditions. “Canada has the Temporary Foreign Workers Program and the student visa program that are temporary statuses with closed work permits creating conditions for migrants to fail to meet their visa conditions, end up in detention, and get deported while Canada gets new migrants to exploit.” 

How does this tie into APEC? Many of the corporations that serve on the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC, “the private sector arm of APEC”) employ migrant labor directly, or contract migrant labor to serve their businesses. Corporations will take advantage of, and even create, economic conditions in different countries favorable to migration. Insufficient labor protections of migrants in richer countries, such as the US and Canada, make migrant labor more attractive to corporations trying to increase their profits. Exploited countries, especially those with puppet regimes of imperialist powers—such as the Philippines—work in collusion with multinational corporations and use the labor export of migrants to boost their own economy. The Philippines alone has millions of migrant workers in other APEC member countries, yet migrant workers themselves, migrant alliances such as IMA, or the general population of the Philippines are not allowed to be represented at APEC meetings or know about the negotiations until after the fact. Additionally, the policies agreed to by APEC member economies only sharpen the contradictions inherent to capitalism, leading to crises of overproduction, unemployment, and climate catastrophe. These crises culminate in conditions leading to forced migration and more opportunities for labor trafficking.

The Peoples’ Summit worked to educate migrant workers and their allies on these connections to the APEC meeting taking place in Seattle. After a full day of education at the University of Washington on Saturday, the Pacific Northwest People Over Profit coalition hosted a rally in the early afternoon on Sunday. Organizations who signed on to the coalition and oppose APEC tabled prior to and during the rally. The Pacific Northwest Division of the American Party of Labor tabled, where our members were able to inform Seattle residents passing through the area about APEC and why we oppose it. We were also able to communicate and build stronger connections with other organizations of the coalition, making commitments to work together on future practical endeavors. As APEC meetings continue in Seattle throughout the months of August, the APL will work with the International Women’s Alliance (IWA), the International League of Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS), and others to mobilize in opposition.

Following the rally and tabling, the march began from the rally site in a public park, to the convention center in downtown Seattle where the APEC meetings were held. Hundreds of people joined the mobilization. Signs and banners read, “APEC Out of Seattle!”, “End Forced Migration!”, and “Defend & Fight for the Rights of Workers, Women, and Migrants.” As the march closed down the street in front of the convention center, flyers were handed out to pedestrians and drivers in stopped traffic with information on APEC. Response from the Seattle public was overwhelmingly positive in support of the protest.

At the Seattle Convention Center, another rally was held with speakers from the Washington Fair Trade Coalition, ILPS, and BAYAN USA. Chants were repeatedly called from protestors in the street to the APEC ministers inside the building. “Come on out, face the people,” was repeatedly called by hundreds, while staff and volunteers inside the convention center filmed the crowd below. The Washington Fair Trade Coalition attempted to deliver a petition with over 10,000 signatures to the doors of the Convention Center for the APEC ministers to consider, with demands of allowing workers a seat at the table during future meetings. The petition was refused.

After several hours, the mobilization came to a close and returned to the park. Organizers are continuing to work to oppose APEC, with plans for more mobilizations in the near future to confront the ongoing meetings in Seattle. Further, the APEC Summit will take place in San Francisco in November. There will be a meeting of heads of state of APEC member economies, and a meeting of CEOs of multinational corporations taking place between November 11–18. Pacific Northwest People Over Profit coalition will be joining the national No to APEC Coalition to prepare new mobilizations in the San Francisco Bay Area later this year. The American Party of Labor resolutely endorses the No to APEC Coalition as we continue to fight against APEC and imperialism everywhere, in any form it takes.

Categories: American Party of Labor, Economy, Immigration, Labor, U.S. News, Women, Workers Struggle