FairTrade-Philippines’ Statement on WTO Stalemate

Redressing trade and development imbalances remains an urgent task


The World Trade Organization (WTO) is deadlocked, after nearly six years of talks, on the new trade commitments members must accept under the so-called Doha Development Round (DDR). The General Council, in its July 27-28 meeting, formally accepted the proposal of Director-General Pascal Lamy to suspend indefinitely the DDR talks, meaning the DDR closure by the end of 2006 (as agreed upon in the Hong Kong Ministerial last December) is likely to be extended.

The DDR stalemate is directly traceable to the obstinate insistence by the United States, European Union and other developed countries

  • to protect the interests of their agriculture constituents who may suffer from trade liberalization,
  • to push for formulae opening up wholesale the industrial, agricultural and service markets of developing countries without reducing and phasing out the former’s trade-distorting agricultural subsidies, varied non-tariff barriers and monopoly hold on technology, and
  • to ignore the legitimate demands of developing countries for flexibilities in scheduling liberalization programs and for full recognition and operationalization of the special-and-differential treatment (SDT) principle enthroned in the very Preamble of the WTO.

On the other hand, many developing countries and enlightened sectors in various societies are equally insistent that the DDR should live up to its name – a Development Round. Meaning talks should focus on the urgent needs to equalize the playing field in agriculture and give developing countries full flexibilities in closing ‘development gaps’ and addressing their own development priorities. Developing countries can no longer be bamboozled to accept unfair and one-sided trade conditionalities, especially under a Round dedicated to their Development.

In this context, we, at the Fair Trade Alliance (FairTrade-Philippines), join the global call for governments, policy makers and development institutions to deepen and broaden the global social discourse and dialogue on the urgency of developing a new framework for global trade that will put the competitiveness and interests of our people and other developing countries at the center of any international trading agreement. Reforms in the WTO system and in other global institutions affecting trade such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank should and must be pursued. The DDA suspension has only accentuated the reality that global trade and development imbalances remain; for the Philippines, the imbalances are evidenced by the continuing erosion of its industrial and agricultural base and its overall competitiveness.

We, at the FairTrade, therefore, call on our government to transform this DDA suspension as an opportunity to reassess critically the Philippines’ integration in the global economy and redress our own trade and development imbalances. We reiterate the following:

1. Correct past liberalization mistakes

This is the time to push for internal reforms, specifically programs aimed at rebuilding our eroded agro-industrial base and reversing the haphazard and one-sided manner by which we have opened up our economy. It is high time for the Philippines to correct its past liberalization mistakes. One concrete corrective measure is to increase the tariffs of the unbound products and to adjust upward the tariffs of the bound products to their maximum WTO binding rates, where appropriate; the 0-5 per cent tariff range, considered in global trade as a ‘nuisance’ range, should be abandoned. Another corrective measure is to set up a Philippine Trade Representative Office (PTRO) that is fully accountable to the nation and does genuine consultation with key sectors of society.

Related to the task of upgrading our agro-industrial capacity is the need to level the playing field right in our own home market. There are a number of doables, including the following:

  • Develop our own product standards and strengthen customs administration. As is well known, while their tariffs are indeed low, developed countries are able to keep at bay imports from other countries through a sophisticated system of product standard certification and strict observance of customs rules and procedures. On the other hand, our country has become a dumping ground of substandard products of other countries, given the absence of such product standards and the laxity of our customs officials and procedures, aggravated by the corrupt practices of some customs and port officials.
  • Equalize the taxation system for domestic and foreign investors. Why should foreign investors producing for the Philippine domestic market get fiscal incentives? And why are incentives, both for the export and domestic markets, seemingly perpetual and not tied to performance?
  • Enact a fair trade law to level the economic playing field not through a narrow recipe of liberalization and privatization policies but by ensuring that genuine competition prevails in key sectors, e.g., oil and power sectors, and that competitive prices for critical products such as drugs are realized through a fair application of the patent system, and that consumer and other sectors are given a voice in disciplining producers and retailers.

2. Unite with other developing countries in pushing for reforms in the global trading system

When the DDA was approved in November 2001, the Doha Ministerial Conference proclaimed that its main objective was to put the ‘needs and interests’ of developing countries ‘at the heart’ of the WTO’s Work Programme. And yet, the talks in the last five years managed to downgrade any discussion on the development issues, specially the insecurities (job, income and social) affecting the working people and the limited and unequal progress achieved by developing countries under a WTO-led globalization. Trade liberalization as an economic panacea is still being bandied about as the cure-all for the economic ills of the world, when it is clear that the one-size-fits-all liberalization model of globalization is at the roots of global, regional and national inequalities and the stark poverty hounding many in developing countries, the Philippines in particular.

We urge the government, both the executive and legislative branches, to explore ways of developing new development frameworks with like-minded governments, both from the South and the North, and with progressive civil society formations everywhere. Trade should serve “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” This includes the flexibility of a developing country to push trade in support of its development needs, including the re-calibration (upward or downward) of tariffs and other liberalization measures when warranted by the requirements of industry and job preservation and poverty eradication. The Philippines, together with other developing countries should help promote an international trading system focused on the interests of the people and balanced development of each member country.

In the context of the above framework, we demand a transparent, rigorous and multi-sectoral review of all Philippine trade commitments in other trade forums such as the ASEAN and APEC.

3. Go slow on the bilaterals

With the stalled WTO talks, pressures are being exerted by developed countries and unrepentant neo-liberalizers on the Philippines and other developing countries to go bilateral, that is, to forge bilateral ‘free trade’ agreements (BFTAs) with them.

Forging normal bilateral trade ties on the basis of each country’s economic endowments and under mutually beneficial arrangements is the right way. But going bilateral under an untrammeled free trade arrangement is like disarming ourselves, for BFTAs do not only demolish all tariffs between the so-called trade partners but also hijack into the BFTAs the controversial ‘Singapore issues’ rejected in the 2003 Cancun WTO Ministerial, namely, the proposed agreements on investment, competition, government procurement and trade facilitation. An investment agreement under the bilateral with the US, for example, means the Philippines as a country can be sued by any American multinational, if it feels discriminated, under the US court system. Our flexibility to produce cheaper drugs will also be contested by drug multinationals which always insist on prolonging and expanding patent protection for drugs whose patents have already expired (e.g., in the US-Singapore BFTA, the American drug companies succeeded in securing pro-MNC protective patent clauses). On the other hand, some imagined gains such as a greater market access for our garments are likely to be marginal for the developed countries such as the United States, for the latter usually insist on the inclusion in the BFTA of strict Rules of Origin (ROO), which are often difficult to comply with for they require the use (and documentation) of industrial materials coming from these countries.

Overall, the suspension of the DDA talks should not lull us into complacency. We should transform this into a platform to correct past trade mistakes, strengthen ties with governments and institutions seeking reforms in the global trading system and launch vigorously a more balanced program of improving our competitiveness towards global integration. The WTO stalemate provides new opportunities to re-calibrate our trade commitments on the basis of our development needs and priorities.

The unbalanced outcomes of 11 years of WTO – and three decades of unilateral Philippine trade liberalization — are enough.

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  • Founded in 2001, the Fair Trade Alliance (FairTrade) of the Philippines is a broad multisectoral coalition of formal and informal labor, industry, agriculture, NGOs and youth pushing for trade and economic reforms.
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