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Thursday, 20 July 2006 08:07

Bush's Free Trade Agreement with Oman Will Endanger Port Security and Worker Conditions

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The Oman Free Trade Agreement (OFTA) was passed today by the House, 221-205. The Senate passed it last month in a 60-34 vote. Americans should be troubled by two important aspects of OFTA: it endangers our autonomy over port security and it provides little protection against slave labor conditions.

Let's start with port security. According to Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), the OFTA would grant any firm operating in Oman the right to acquire and operate port activities within the United States. "These are the very activities Congress just insisted Dubai Ports World not control," he said.

While Oman is one of the more friendly nations of the Middle East and not much of a threat, OFTA gives the ability to control our ports to any private company which might one day operate within Oman. This could include Dubai Ports World or any more dubious firm.

While our government would have some ability to restrict such ownership, OFTA allows any firm barred access to bring a complaint to a UN or World Bank foreign tribunal to challenge our desire to control our own ports. An unfavorable ruling could result in fines of millions of taxpayer's dollars.

This issue isn't about globalization, xenophobia, or even free trade. It's about maintaining the autonomy to manage our own security and homeland. Conservative attempts to shrink government by privatizing traditionally public works have resulted in disaster, corruption, and waste time and time again. It is stupid to now surrender yet more power to foreign companies who we have even less oversight of.

The other major flaw in OFTA is the lack of worker protections. The Senate Finance Committee unanimously passed an amendment 18-0 in a markup session that banned products produced with sweatshops or slave labor. However, Bush had this provision removed and sent the original bill to Congress under fast track procedures, which prevents revisions.

Last month, the New York Times reported on the terrible consequences of our recent free trade agreement with Jordan, another relatively friendly Middle Eastern nation, which had a similar lack of protection. There has been a boom of sweatshops filled with foreign workers who profit American companies like Wal-Mart at the expense of American jobs. Many work 20-hour days, are not paid for months, and are hit or jailed when they complain.

It is in the interests of nearly everyone that this not be duplicated in Oman. Everyone, that is, except Bush's most wealthy supporters, which is exactly why he removed the amendment.

The GOP response is that conditions aren't that bad now in Oman, whose government has said they would improve existing problems by October. Hoping for the best is not good enough. A recent report by the State Department found Oman has "not improve(d) its minimal efforts to provide protection to expatriate workers who may fall victim to involuntary servitude." What's more, according to Wikipedia "several international business bureaus advise against doing business with the Omani government" due to work contracts which have been violated or ignored by government institutions.

Once again, Republicans have helped the excessively rich at the expense of American jobs and the poorest people around the world, jeopardizing our autonomy and security in the process.