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May 6, 2014

Alex Atamanenko on Canada-Honduras Economic Growth and Prosperity Act

Alex Atamanenko, NDP MP for British Columbia Southern Interior (B.C.) during debate on Canada-Honduras Economic Growth and Prosperity Act.

Mr. Speaker, let me be clear. There are three fundamentally important criteria for assessing the merits of trade agreements.

First, does the proposed partner respect democracy, human rights, adequate labour and environmental standards, and Canadian values? If there are challenges in these regards, is the partner on a positive trajectory toward these goals?

Second, is the proposed partner's economy of significant or strategic value to Canada? Third, are the terms of the proposed agreement satisfactory?

The proposed free trade agreement with Honduras clearly fails this test. Honduras is a country with undemocratic practices, a corrupt government, weak institutions and a record of human rights abuses. It has low standards and insignificant strategic value.

Honduras is a very poor country with a history of repressive, undemocratic politics and a seriously flawed human rights record. Leftist president Manuel Zelaya's democratically elected government was toppled by a military coup in 2009. Since then, international observers have severely criticized the government's actions and the elections because they fail to meet acceptable democratic standards.

I recently received some information from a friend on Vancouver Island as a response to an op-ed that I had written on the Canada–Honduras trade agreement. He had just conducted a development and peace workshop about Honduras, and had spent six weeks in northern Honduras last fall on a personal accompaniment project with Father Melo Moreno, S.J., the director of an independent radio station and a human rights centre called ERIC.

This is what he wrote me when referring to Father Melo:

Either job puts him at the front of the firing squad and he lives with death threats and intimidation. As well some of his workers have received death threats. Twice I accompanied Melo to a prison near La Ceiba to visit a political prisoner—a peasant farmer who has been in jail for almost 6 years but a leader of a campesino community.

....Canada is very much present in Honduras through mining companies and through the sweatshops...which are there because labour laws and environmental protection laws are weak or non-existent thanks to the Free trade agreement conditions that Canada imposed.

I would like to read again from a paper entitled “Faith in Action: Padra Melo”, written by a woman by the name of Molly Holden. It says:

On October 9, Rev. Ismael Moreno Coto, S.J. popularly known as “Padre Melo” spoke to a group of Boston College students and faculty on the violence and ongoing human rights violations in Honduras, currently the 'murder Capital of the world'. His presentation, the Price of Truth: Human rights in Honduras since the Coup, addressed the struggles and successes of building a fair and inclusive society. In his testimony before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Committee of the US Congress in 2012, Padre Melo asked members of the Committee how freedom of expression could 'be defended in a country like Honduras where the biggest violators of the this fundamental freedom are the friends and partners of a “democracy” backed by the policies and agencies of the U.S. government?' Padre Melo stated that around 80% of cocaine imported to the United States comes through Honduras by way of Colombia. However, U.S. attempts to combat drug trafficking in Honduras (and elsewhere in Latin America) place power and money in the hands of the Honduran military officials and politicians who are deeply tied to the drug lords. In other words, drug traffickers, weakening the rule of law and increasing violence, control the Honduran government at all levels.

I would like to finish by sharing an article entitled “Canada profiting off the backs of Honduras' poor”, by the Troy Media publication columnist, Mark Taliano, who was part of a Canadian delegation that went to Honduras to observe elections. The article states:

In March of 2007, Gildan Activewear Inc., a Montreal-based textile manufacturer, decided to leave Canada for sunnier climes.

The company laid off hundreds of Canadian workers, and resettled where business was good: Honduras. The end result? Canada lost jobs and Honduras' asymmetrical, toxic economy, was further entrenched.

Honduran sweatshop workers are basically commodities and their status will likely remain unchanged, or get worse. The 2009 coup that removed the democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya was condemned internationally (even U.S. resident Obama declared it illegal), and the new regime dismantled or corrupted institutions that might be of benefit to humans (including constitutional judges), and created a heavily militarized and murderous environment. “Since 2010,”reported Raul Burbano, delegation leader of election observers from Canada, “there have been more than 200 politically motivated killings.”

In the meantime, Canada's Gildan profits from the misery. Gildan pays no taxes in Honduras, and the workforce (primarily women) is easily exploited. Unions and collective bargaining are not allowed and human rights are not a concern.

This is who we are dealing with in the free trade agreement.

It continues:

The Collective Of Honduran Women...a brave voice for freedom in Honduras, comprehensively documents the exploitation of workers. Spokespeople told us:

1) Workers produce T-shirts from about 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. four days a week, at jobs that are physically repetitive. Repetitive strain injuries are common, proper care is elusive, and injured workers are easily discarded.

Further, it states:

At Gildan, inspectors aren't allowed in to the plant, and workers are fired (or worse) if they try to organize unions.

2) One former worker explained that she would be given a cortisone shot to treat her calcified tendinitis, and then sent immediately back to work.

Later, it states:

It's no surprise then, that by age 25, chronic work injuries, coupled with poor medical treatment, often prevent workers from performing their fast-paced tasks.

Worse still, once a worker leaves Gildan, she is likely to have irreversible health problems which preclude her from finding alternate employment. Some women need crutches to walk; others can't hold their babies or do housework. Savage poverty imposes itself on their already precarious existences, and decimated social institutions perpetuate the misery.

Healthcare, schooling, and other social/public institutions are abysmal, and only those (few) with money get adequate service.

What are the drivers behind such misery?

Those who control the levels of power in Honduras are governed by interests that do not include the common good, consequently, society and the economy have been spirally downward since the coup.

Prior to the 2009 military coup, freedom and democracy were making inroads into the malaise, but now the power structure looks something like this:

At the top of this asymmetrical and entirely dysfunctional political economy are transnational corporations, including banks. They are seamlessly aligned with governments in Canada and the U.S. They tacitly, if not overtly, drive foreign policy decisions.

On the ground in Honduras looms the invisible hand of the U.S. military, viewed by locals as an “occupying force”, that arguably enables destabilization—drug trafficking has increased since the coup—and is allied with the corrupt dictator Juan Orlando Hernandez.

Locally, the nexus of powerful polities includes narco gangs, the police, the military, the para-police...and rich oligarch....

Corruption throughout society is so pervasive that people trying to make a living often have to pay extortion money not only too gangs, but also to the police.

Now, with a growing number of U.S. military bases and the murderous dictatorship of Juan Orlando Hernandez solidified, profits are basically guaranteed for transnational corporations.

As Canadians, we need to continue asking important questions. For example,

“Why are these “Free Trade” Agreements, such as the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement, so secret?” and “Why have we chosen to profit from the misery of others?”

Once we get some answers, we might choose to pay a couple dollars more for our next T-shirt.—

This is who we are dealing with. This is the country we are trying to do a free trade agreement with.

By the way, in these agreements, we have provisions allowing companies to sue governments, similar to chapter 11 in NAFTA, if they are not treated to their liking. Theoretically, a Canadian company perpetuating injustices in Honduras could actually sue the Honduran government if it were not happy with the policies of that government.

Why are we signing an agreement with a country with this record of human rights abuse and that even allows our companies to continue this abuse in their country?

I think that is the question we have to answer here today before we talk about free trade with a country like Honduras.

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