Secretive Mega-Trade Deal Rules Could Harm Asia’s Covid-19 Recovery

Community Health warriors (Anganwadi center in Chennai, Tamil
Nadu). Credit: Public Services

By Lyndal Rowlands
BANGKOK, Thailand, Nov 13 2020 (IPS)

Fifteen countries will sign a mega-trade deal at the ASEAN
conference this weekend imposing secretive restrictions on how
governments help workers through the pandemic, trade union leaders
and parliamentarians have warned.

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

Elected officials 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.

“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.

The secretive nature of the agreement is also 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.

However, Covid-19 isn’t the only major omission from the
agreement. Leaked documents have also shown that it does not
mention climate change or make provisions for labour rights,
including forced labour or child labour.

Considered volunteers, Anganwadi workers and helpers are not
part of regular government compensation and social benefit schemes,
including pension. Credit: Public Services

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.

Notably, India, recently withdrew despite spending several years
in RCEP negotiations, citing concerns it would not protect its own
industries and workers, said Kate Lappin, Regional Secretary for
Asia and Pacific, at Public Services International. Free trade
agreements create a “race to the bottom” said Lappin,
encouraging governments to compete to have the lowest possible
wages and conditions.

Che Chariya, a Cambodian garment worker and 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, Chariyasaid that for many garment
workers, including herself, the challenges pre-dated Covid-19.
Chariyaworked 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 whilethe piece rate has
gone down.

Instead of signing new rules that favour big business, and harm
workers like Chariya, Lappin said that governments should instead
work on agreements for the greater public good, such as
India and South Africa’s proposal
to have governments waive
trade rules in the World Trade Organisation so that all countries
will have access to a Covid-19 vaccine and other critical medical
information, noting that restrictions on access to medicines were
“a prime example of why we shouldn’t be signing trade
agreements at the moment.”

Indeed, 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.


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Secretive Mega-Trade Deal Rules Could Harm Asia’s Covid-19
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Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Secretive Mega-Trade Deal Rules Could Harm Asia’s Covid-19