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Report on and Analysis of Hot Debate on WTO

22.08.2003

At a one-day seminar of the General Workers’ Federation on Tuesday 19th August at the Manissa Hotel, Flic an Flac in the presence of over a 100 delegates from major work sectors in Mauritius (sugar cane, electricity, the port, bus transport, to name four of the major sectors) there was a debate between the main Mauritian government Trade Negotiator, Mr. Assad Bhuglah and a LALIT representative, Lindsey Collen.

The theme of the seminar was what will happen to social services in the context of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which is one of the main agreements that forms part of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Jayen Cuttaree, the Minister of International Trade will be attending the WTO Summit from 10th September in Cancun, Mexico. Trade Union delegates are deepening their knowledge on the WTO, in the context of the new threats on social services. This is the second such seminar on the WTO held by the GWF, and the All Workers Conference also held many huge delegates conferences over the years that the WTO was being set up, 1995-1999.

Mr. Bhuglah’s main contention was that GATS is so complicated that simple mortals cannot really get to grips with it. His second main contention was that the social services like water, health, electricity, education do not, according to him, fall under the GATS at all. He argued that services are only included if they are not “supplied in the exercise of governmental authority”.

What he failed to mention, however, as Lindsey Collen later pointed out, is that any service is a candidate for privatization and liberalization if it is offered on a “commercial basis” or “in competition with one or more service suppliers” (GATS, article 13c).

It is a well known fact that in Mauritius, there are payments for water, for example, education is provided by other private “service suppliers”. In any case, Mr. Bhuglah failed to explain how the Mauritian State had already offered telecommunications up to GATS when Telecom was a service “supplied in the exercise of governmental authority” to a greater degree than water ever was. So, clearly the social services are all threatened with being considered the kind of services that the GATS intend to liberalize for profit.

Mr. Bhuglah also conceded that the requests made by the Mauritian government on behalf of the private sector were “confidential”. However, private sector representatives may be aware of the requests in their sectors. He said that “requests” put to Mauritius by foreign governments on behalf of their private companies were also secret. He explained that this is the nature of commerce.

Interestingly, he said that the main thing the Mauritian government hopes to gain is for Mauritians to be able to move abroad to work, under the GATS so-called “Mode 4”. (Mode 4 is a fancy term for workers getting work permits in other countries that need labour or professionals in a particular sector). This sounded to many delegates like a re-run of the PMSD negotiations prior to Mauritian Independence. However, Mr. Bhuglah hastened to make a distinction: The Mauritian Government does not want its citizens to emigrate, but to go abroad and work. The implication was that they may repatriate some of their money. These seem to be the crumbs that the Mauritian Government is negotiating for.

Lindsey Collen situated GATS as an instrument of the present-day capitalist project of so-called “governance”. This means reglementation at a level which is across national boundaries, and “governance” differs from “government” in that there is no democratic element at all, on the one hand, and that the private sector forms part of the network together with bits of State apparatus of different countries. She denounced the GATS apparatus as secretive, opaque, and totally undemocratic.

She said that there had been a massive increase in the productivity of labour in the past 15 years, and present-day globalization was the push to control the fruits of this massive increase in productivity. Globalization has shifted a greater share of the fruits of production from labour to capital, on the one hand, and from productive capital to finance (or gambling) capital, on the other. GATS forms part of this shift.

GATS, she explained, is an instrument for protecting a newly defined category of “rights”. The “rights” (in inverted commas) of the owners of property. It represents a constant attack on the rights of workers, women, consumers, electors, children, and the environment.

She explained the way that Governments are at present supposed to “offer” up services for foreign companies to take over the supply, and to “request” on behalf of their private companies what they would like to take up elsewhere.

Once a Minister has made an offer of a service, she explained, there is a “lock-in” effect. It is not possible to withdraw. The Government concerned has to pay compensation. And if it cannot or does not pay, then the foreign government can force it to open up a service of its choice for liberalization.

Delegates present raised questions ranging from the price of goods in Mauritius to whether Mauritian Trade Representatives were part of the “green room” negotiations, where it would seem that all major negotiations are done behind closed doors. Mr. Bhuglah said Mauritius was not in these “green room” negotiations. He also said that the requests made by Mauritius could not be divulged. He conceded that there had not been public debate about joining the WTO or about signing up to its treaties. However, he said the Trade Ministers had often made statements in the National Assembly.