Saturday, November 14, 2020

Asia's Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

 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. 

The text of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement is so secretive that even elected representatives have not been allowed to see it, even though it will potentially lock future governments into rules that will limit their abilities to make policies required in times of crisis or to improve access to public services and worker’s rights. Leaked documents have shown that the agreement limits the potential for governments to make policies, including policies to recover from the Covid-19 crisis.  Leaked documents have also shown that it does not mention climate change or make provisions for labour rights, including forced labour or child labour. Many across the region fear that the agreement has been kept secret because it heavily favours large multinational corporations who help draft trade rules, over the local small and medium businesses that are struggling most due to the pandemic.

The secretive nature of the agreement is  unusual, given that the text was finalised 12 months ago, meaning that it includes no specific updates recognising the extraordinary challenges created byCovid-19 pandemic, said Andrew Dettmer the National President of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.

 Risa Hontiveros, a Senator from the Philippines, said at a press conference organised by Unions for Trade Justice, “This pandemic has shown us that we should never put the economy before our people.”  

“Even parliaments have no idea what the hell is being signed in the name of the people,” Charles Santiago, a Member of Parliament from Malaysia, said. Santiago described how restrictions imposed by international agreements had already prevented some governments from rolling out mass testing: “even in a pandemic the people are being held hostage by big pharma,” he said.

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.

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