Provisions of the new tri-party North American trade agreement – now CUSMA, replacing NAFTA – continue to race ahead to meet a July 1 target implementation with scant attention paid to the consumer protection implications of the agreement.
Consumers Council of Canada has participated in federal government briefings throughout the NAFTA/CUSMA negotiations initiated by the Trump administration, including one on April 24. That session identified three key issues remaining to be completed, including U.S. procedural issues covering presidential certification to Congress, regulation around uniform rules of origin, and dispute settlement procedures.
“Unfortunately, consumer organizations were not invited or supported to join the various industry or subject advice panels, where they could have provided much needed input about necessary consumer protection,” said Council President Don Mercer.
Mercer, who participated in the April briefing, observed subsequently that consumer protection issues were never raised as a component of implementation and meaningful consumer input about consumer protection issues was not facilitated at any point during the negotiation process.
“In international trade agreements, when nations import goods, they often import other nation’s consumer protection challenges, for better or worse,” Mercer said. “It is not automatically in Canada’s best interests to do that.
“No exploration with consumer groups took place about how supply chains needed to be organized to ensure the safety and security of consumers,” Mercer said. “We are presently in a global consumer protection crisis, and there are numerous supply disruptions. Still, no one takes consumer protection seriously enough.” He added that there are virtually no avenues for consumer input into ongoing discussions about dispute settlement panel members, rules of procedure, or flexibility in regulatory changes still pending that will impact trade in cosmetics.
“Indeed while a civil society panel including the Consumers Council was initiated and membership invited near the beginning of the CUSMA negotiation process, it never met,” Mercer added. “Instead its members were merely included within the general update briefings.”
A number of recent policy papers have observed that the new North American agreement follows trends in which nations incorporate regulatory co-operation into trade deals. This can lead to higher standards on occasion, but more often restrict regulation in specific areas. A Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives paper noted that CUSMA commits the nations “to regulate, in all situations, in a very specific pro-business and non-precautionary way …. while the public demands to remove toxic chemicals from our food and consumer goods, [and] planes literally fall from the sky as a result of sketchy industry self-regulation.”
Canada, the United States and Mexico signed the new agreement in November 2018, and began the process of aligning the legislation towards ratifying and implementing the new terms. Canada’s implementation legislation was introduced in January 2020 and received Royal Assent March 19, leaving some regulations and orders still to be finalized.
The Council has highlighted how global trade agreements have impacted domestic trade practices, without meaningful processes being in place to ensure consumers’ interests and risks are appropriately managed. Also, complaints processes have not been modernized to prepare for the sea change in trading relationships, the Council has identified.
Innovation to protect consumers has not been high on government agendas, Mercer said. “Governments are doing deals among themselves and with business, without involving capable representation of consumers or focusing sufficiently on the needs and risks of consumers.”