Community Health Warriors (Anganwadi Center in Chennai, Tamil Nadu). Credit: Public Services International (PSI) BANGKOK, Thailand, Nov. 13 (IPS) – Fifteen countries will sign a mega-trade deal at the ASEAN conference this weekend, imposing secret restrictions on how governments, union leaders and workers through the pandemic Parliamentarians have warned to help.
The text of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement is so secret that even elected officials have not been allowed to see it, although it may bind future governments to rules that limit their ability to take political action in times of crisis or to restrict access to improve public services and labor rights.
Leaked documents have shown that the deal limits the potential for governments to take policy action, including measures 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 in front of our people,” she said at a press conference organized by Trade Justice Unions on Thursday.
Elected officials across the region fear that the deal has been kept secret as it gives large multinational companies that help form trade rules over the local small and medium-sized enterprises that are most struggling with the pandemic .
“Even parliaments have no idea what the hell is going to be signed in the name of the people,” said Charles Santiago, an MP from Malaysia.
The secret nature of the agreement is also unusual, as the text was finalized 12 months ago, meaning it does not contain any specific updates that take into account the extraordinary challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, said Andrew Dettmer, who national president of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.
Covid-19 isn’t the only major loophole in the deal, however. Leaked documents have also shown that there is no mention of climate change or provisions on labor rights, including forced labor or child labor.
As volunteers, Anganwadi workers and volunteers are not considered part of the regular state compensation and social security systems, including the pension. Credit: Public Services International (PSI) 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 other Australia countries, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea on November 15th.
India, in particular, recently pulled back despite spending several years in RCEP negotiations, citing concerns that 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 for the lowest possible wages and conditions.
Che Chariya, a Cambodian textile worker and union leader, described the real consequences of this type of race to the bottom. Textile workers in Cambodia were particularly hard hit by the suspension of large orders from multinational companies due to Covid-19. Chariyasaid, however, that for many textile workers, including yourself, the challenges pre-covid-19. Chariya worked in a clothing factory for 18 years until it closed in 2018. She now works for a unit price in a sweatshop and loses the factory’s minimum wage and social security benefits, even though she still makes clothes for the same companies. Since the pandemic, the cost of living has risen while the number has decreased.
Rather than signing new rules that favor big corporations and harm workers like Chariya, Lappin said governments should instead work on agreements for the common good, such as India and South Africa’s proposal that governments abandon trade rules in the World Trade Organization all countries will have access to a Covid-19 vaccine and other vital medical information, with restricting access to medicines “being a prime example of why we shouldn’t be signing trade deals right now”.
Indeed, Santiago described how restrictions imposed by international treaties had already prevented some governments from doing mass testing: “Even in a pandemic, people are held hostage by big drug companies,” he said.
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