Free trade agreements create a “race to the bottom” said Kate Lappin, Regional Secretary for Asia and Pacific, at Public Services International, encouraging governments to compete to have the lowest possible wages and conditions. Instead of signing new rules that favour big business, and harm workers Lappin said
The 10 members of ASEAN – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – will sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) together with five additional countries Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea on 15 November.
India recently withdrew despite spending several years in RCEP negotiations, citing concerns it would not protect its own industries and workers.
Che Chariya, a Cambodian garment worker union leader described the real-world consequences that this type of race to the bottom creates. Garment workers in Cambodia have been particularly hard hit by the suspension of major contracts from multinational firms due to Covid-19. However, Chariya said that for many garment workers, including herself, the challenges pre-dated Covid-19. Chariya worked in a garment factory for 18 years until it closed in 2018. She now works in a sweatshop for a piece rate, losing the factory’s minimum wage and social security benefits, despite still making clothes for the same companies. Since the pandemic, she says the cost of living has increased while the piece rate has gone down.