Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

28 October 1999 Edition

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Workers in struggle: Trading places


This week in Europe you have the bizarre scene of a British agriculture minister boycotting French products because their government refused to lift its ban on British beef imports. The boycott by Nick Brown, though ignored by the rest of the New Labour cabinet, has been a rallying cry for many British retail outlets and businesses, who are only too willing to remove French stock from their shelves.

The reaction in France has been to erect road blocks on many of the exit routes from Channel ports, causing gridlock for British lorry drivers.

Menawhile in the United States, a biotechnology company, Celera Genomics, has made patent applications for 1.2 billion of the 3 billion coded DNA sequences that constitute your basic common human being.

Human Blue print

Celera had made the patent application to pre-empt a similar move by European companies that are also attempting to decode what some scientists are calling the ``human blue print''.

What is the driving force behind both these bizarre events? The simple answer is the potential profit from global trade of the products in question. Some readers might wonder when human genes became a product to be branded and put up for sale. Well, the simple answer is it became a reality in 1993 when the eighth treaty of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade Organisation was signed by the 117 participating member states.

The 1993 Uruguay round of trade negotiations allowed for the patenting of genetic codes for plant and animal life.

Diet Coke Clone

Since then, a range of transnational concerns have been traversing the planet `discovering' rare flora fauna etc and patenting their findings. Genetically modified food and Dolly the sheep are examples of the end products of this process and now the odd genetically modified human is set to follow. It seems that one day you will be able to buy the Diet Coke man or woman clone.

However this was only one small part of the Uruguay round of trade negotiations. A range of new trade accords came into force in textiles, in tariff reduction, food production, telecommunications and financial services. As well as all of this, a new agency called the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was set up to oversee and administer existing trade agreements and plan for future ones.

Irish Imperialism

The 1993 accord was a coming of age for the 26 Counties, who, represented by the EU, were party to a treaty that while promoting free trade was actually ring fencing the richer economies. In cases like that of sub-Saharan Africa, the treaty was actually making them worse off as average income has fallen by $1.2 billion in the five years since the Uruguay round came into force.

The other Irish input was to provide the first WTO director-general. This was former 26-County Attorney General, EU Commissioner, GPA, AIB, BP chairperson, and now Goldman Sachs multi-millionaire Peter Sutherland. Since then there have been two directors, including the new office holder, Mike Moore.

Shutdown Sea Town

Moore has a problem. It is only weeks away to the WTO's next summit in Seattle USA on 29 November. This summit was supposed to kick off a new millenium round of trade negotiations.

The Seattle summit has been overshadowed by a campaign against the WTO organised by consumer and human rights groups across the world. These groups have used the internet to organise and their aim is to ``Shut down Seatown'' on 29 November.

One of the groups campaigning against the WTO is Consumers International, a federation of 247 consumer groups in 111 countries. They are ``a worldwide non-profit federation of consumer organisations dedicated to the protection and promotion of consumer interests''.

Business Threats

Consumers International believes that consumer rights are being undermined by trade accords, especially in the less developed states. The main beneficiaries are the large businesses that trade across international boundaries.

An example of the power of these businesses Consumers International cites is the threat by the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association to challenge a South African Government Proposal to introduce new national health laws that would lower medicine costs for local consumers.

In Europe, workers have been pitted against workers in a phoney trade battle. Neither consumers nor workers in France or Britain are likely to be beneficiaries of the growing trade dispute between these two states. The likely winners will be the political and business interests who are all too ready to fuel division between French and British farmers.

Farm Business

Farming as a way of life is in decline throughout Europe. The current beef battle will not change this. The farm business is not in decline though, and this is the essence of the opposition to the WTO next month in Seattle. Consumers International wants a trade agreement that benefits customers throughout the world not as is the case now where nearly 75 per cent of the income gains are enjoyed by only 25 per cent of the world's population.

Consumers International can be contacted at

Nurse arrested

The realities of taking on the forces of the state are taking their toll on the nurses. They are finding that coming into conflict with the state can lead to unforeseen outcomes.

As over 10,000 striking nurses marched through Dublin last week, one of their supporters was being taken to Store Street Garda station. Her crime was taking up a collection without a permit.

Like many republicans before her, the woman was charged and released on bail with a date in Dublin's District Court on 5 November.

It seems that the guards are quick to forget their own recent bout of industrial action. Or maybe it is that they have no need of taking up collections, as many recent reports from the Comptroller and Auditor General have shown the state itself to be a funder of the Gardaí's various representative associations.

Meanwhile, as An Phoblacht goes to print, nurses are to be ballotted on a new Labour Court proposal which recommends the creation of a new senior staff nurse grade, providing for 2,500 posts with a pay rate 5 per cent greater than the current scale. The proposal also allows for the creation of other senior posts with allowance increases.

270 per cent profits rise

As we gear up for Budget 2000 and the next round of partnership negotiations, the issue of giving employees a greater share in their company's profits is one demand that is becoming increasingly vocal. Figures from the recent Central Bank statistical bulletin give serious weight to the profit sharing camp.

In 1988, non-agricultural wages, salaries and pensions totalled £10.568 billion. In 1998 the figure was £23.034 billion, an increase of nearly 118 per cent.

Compare that with the figure for profits and professional earnings over the same period. In 1988, the profits figure was just over £6 billion. In 1998, the figure reached over £22 billion, an increase of nearly 270%.

Ford racism

Unions at Ford's Dagenham car plant are to present U.S. executives at the company with an anti racism plan this week. Industrial unrest has been growing at a plant where only half the manual workforce are white. Despite this, 90 per cent of salaried staff are white and 98 per cent of managers and supervisors are white.

Workers have claimed that racial harassment and bullying is prevalent at the company and now want a diversity and equality assessment review with measurable targets and audits.

The unanswered question is what are the ramifications of this for Ford's Six-County plants, where discrimination against nationalists has been proven repeatedly?

An Phoblacht
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