An opinion and a brief news story in this week’s eweek suggest that CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement, built on the structure of NAFTA, are headed to Congressional approval and that it’s not necessarily a good idea.
Here are a couple of the reasons cited in the articles for putting this in the bad-idea category:
1. The countries involved are tiny players, representing a miniscule portion of trade with the US; so why bother? I find this argument specious. Size should have nothing to do with principle. And the agreement has sufficient materiality to benefit some companies — otherwise, the tech industry wouldn’t be pushing so hard to approve it. It opens up new, unfettered markets for hardware and equipment providers.
2. US tech workers see it as just another set of “super-rights” for mega-corporations, guaranteed to put more IT jobs into jeopardy. Probably true. As eweek Executive Editor Chris Gonsalves writes: “[CAFTA] makes the Central American members participants in the World Trade Organization’s Information Technology Agreement, opening up what IT market these countries will support equally to all 63 ITA nations. If you guessed that includes China, you’d be right.” Shunning CAFTA is akin to closing the barn window before any more chickens leave, even though the barn door has been open for years.
Yes, some players will exploit and some workers will lose. Changes in how the phone system operates put a swath of operators out of work. PCs and voice mail cut short many a secretarial career. That doesn’t mean we should retain the old ways of doing things simply to preserve those jobs. (There are, of course, exceptions to this; I go to a local state park where, on the weekends, a group of people demonstrate the fascinating art of blacksmithing, so that we can learn how hard and how hot that work was.)
My hope, as always, is that those American worker lobbying efforts include pushing for amendments that force the US to take a more aggressive stance toward retraining and greater benefits for displaced tech workers. This could come as a reality as labor groups for professionals begin to cooperate in pushing back on legislation that puts their memberships at risk.
But as for CAFTA, I believe protectionist measures get in the way of good ideas and better ways of working. We can’t relegate Central America to some pre-ordained role as provider of coffee beans and colorfully decorated belts. They need to have the opportunity to fully embrace the 21st century and its remarkable opportunities in the services industry.