Comment: Oahu pays high price for bad APEC deal

Eric Gill

Eric Gill is the Financial Secretary-Treasurer of UNITE HERE Local 5. A shortened version of the following column was featured in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

HONOLULU—Oahu residents are groaning under the impact of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference. Parks and beaches were inaccessible or closed on a holiday weekend to residents and visitors alike. Roads were blocked unexpectedly and even the freeway closed, forcing commuters into massive traffic snarls. Businesses, too, closed because customers couldn’t get to their doors. Waikiki was under martial law conditions with concrete barricades, car searches, workers subject to background checks to determine if they could work, security passes needed to enter various areas, and even offshore surf sites closed.

Adding insult to injury, right after teachers and other public workers have been forced to take pay and benefit cuts, millions of dollars of our tax money was spent to spiff up landscaping and push our most unfortunate out of what little they can call home. 

This our government did in order to put on a show for the richest of the rich and their politician servants—the very ones who caused (and benefitted from) the economic crisis that has cut our services, impoverished our public workers, and put our families out on the street.

Whether or not Hawaii’s visitor industry will get a boost in business travel out of this is debatable, but one thing is certain: We have tainted the vacations of the visitors we already have. Just imagine paying for an expensive vacation in Waikiki and not being able to get in and out to see the sights or go golfing.

And all for what? Just what went on at the APEC talks that was worth the nuisance and expense we endured?

It’s all a big secret, but the facts are beginning to emerge despite the secrecy, and the distraction of self-promoting politicians making speeches. APEC was really about working on a dirty deal to benefit global banks and corporations at the expense of the rest of us. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal they continue to cook up represents a massive corporate/bank end-run around our laws, protections, rights, and self-determination.

Calling this kind of international agreement a “free trade” agreement is a cruel deception. Only a small portion of these agreements even talk about trade issues. Most of the provisions provide ways for global banks and corporations to get around the laws and regulations that we have set up to protect the public interest.

Labor laws to ensure basic standards for workers in our community? They are talking about how to get around those. Environmental protection laws, consumer protection laws, land-use laws, even laws to control health care costs—they are talking about how to get around those.

Laws protecting Hawaiian lands are in danger, rendering Hawaiian sovereignty meaningless, but it is not only Hawaii’s native peoples’ sovereignty that is being undermined, it is the sovereign rights of Hawaii and the United States as well.

All nations signing trade deals like the TPP are giving up sovereignty rights to corporations and banks.  The provisions of this agreement allow private entities—banks and corporations—to bring suit in international courts to enforce the terms. Global banks and corporations that have no allegiance or loyalty to any nation are empowered to bring lawsuits to force nations that sign the agreement to give up laws they have on the books that restrict banks and corporations from despoiling communities for profit.

This has already happened under previous “free trade” scams like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). One recent example is how Mexican corporations have been successful in ignoring safety and anti-pollution laws that took decades of struggle to put in place. Unsafe and polluting Mexican trucks, with drivers paid under Mexican wage and benefit standards, now have free access to American highways, competing with American truckers that respect American laws.

Even future laws we would like to pass will be prevented. For example, the Governor’s idea that Hawaii should buy food from local farmers to feed out school children—that idea could be prevented along with any other Buy Hawaii or Buy American programs. The many good ideas that our community might come up with to build up our local economy and protect our local people could all be prevented or overturned in the false name of “free trade.”

Perhaps the most disgusting aspect of what is being discussed are the provisions that would make it impossible for Hawaii (or the United States and any signatory country) to control health care costs resulting from skyrocketing prescription drug prices. They are talking about rules that would prevent us from promoting generic drugs and force us to buy hideously overpriced patented drugs. And they want to extend the years that pharmaceutical companies can keep new drugs under patent, thereby maintaining their breathtaking monopoly prices for drugs.

Agreements such as TPP would make health care reform meaningless by taking away our ability to control the cost of prescription drugs, a major cost-driver in spiraling health care costs. All of us—or at least 99 percent of us—will be the victims, and the big pharmaceutical companies and the banks that own them. The 1 percent will generate even bigger profits off our illnesses and aging.

What APEC was talking about was a massive sellout by our political leaders to the 1 percent—the banks and corporations whose greed and incompetence has already crashed our economy and ruined the lives of millions in Hawaii and the United States. The TPP is just another scheme to stick it to the 99 percent of us that work for a living.

No wonder APEC put up walls, barricades, traffic stops and road closures to keep Hawaii’s people away from them. They were up to no good.