Intervenor: Vol 25. No 3 & 4 July-December 2000

CELA responds to services trade de-regulation at the WTO

Although the debacle of Seattle prevented the World Trade Organization (WTO) from beginning a comprehensive round of trade negotiations this year, negotiations are occurring on the so-called "built-in" agenda of the WTO. This includes negotiations on trade in agriculture and services.

What are services? They comprise all those human activities which do not result in the production of a tangible good. Examples are legal advice, health care, education, transportation, environmental engineering, water and sewage services, waste management, land use planning, and innumerable other activities. The negotiating agenda is very broad and challenging for public interest advocates like CELA.

To respond to this challenge, CELA has collaborated with other groups across Canada to establish the Trade and Investment Research Project to study and intervene in the current negotiations, both with the Canadian government and internationally. We have hired Scott Sinclair, a knowledgeable and experienced trade policy analyst and he has now completed a comprehensive analysis of the WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services entitled GATS: How the World Trade Organization's new "services" negotiations threaten democracy. The book is available from our collaborators, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. We have also established an ongoing consultative relationship with Canada's federal services negotiators to attempt to persuade them to ensure that necessary public protections are not negotiated away.

Besides de-regulation of trade in services, the negotiators are currently considering a global approach to determining whether national regulations concerning services are "more burdensome than necessary."

This discussion essentially invites the WTO to substitute its opinion for those of citizens and governments regarding whether our regulatory frameworks for important public services must be down-graded to maximize business competition. It appears that the Canadian negotiators are again proceeding into these negotiations without clear thinking or a clear mandate to make essential protections non-negotiable. They have not done a comprehensive review of the regulatory framework in Canada in order to understand what is at stake. We continue to urge them to do so.

In addition, CELA has responded by compiling a number of illustrative examples of necessary regulatory standards for services. These include standards for water quality such as specifications for water sampling, laboratory testing , reporting to the Ministries of Environment and Health and professional accreditation requirements for the engineers who prepare the reports. We also specified standards for water and sewage system construction and forest management, including forest planning, logging, wildlife protection, and regeneration standards.

We have also argued that the very idea of giving the WTO more authority to interfere with domestic regulations is undemocratic and likely to result in further destruction of important standards. There have been a dozen cases at the WTO in which panels found domestic health or environmental standards to be inconsistent with trade agreements, requiring that they be removed. We can expect the same result if the WTO considers standards for public services. No public protections appear to be "necessary" in the minds of WTO decision-makers.

Since the services trade negotiations are just beginning, CELA is making a concerted effort to influence the decision-making of governments, both in Canada and abroad, hoping that in the post-Seattle world, citizens will have more impact on the WTO negotiations.

Michelle Swenarchuk is a lawyer at CELA, and Director, International Programme