Fair trade for all crucial in times of COVID-19

The negotiations on the Asia-Pacific Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are in their final stages. The agreement, once ratified, covers 30% of the world's population and almost 30% of the world's GDP. IndustriALL South East Asia Regional Secretary Annie Adviento stresses the importance of an inclusive and just deal that ensures access to medical supplies and food amid the global pandemic.

Maintaining open supply chains and trade is crucial amid the on-going pandemic. Making sure free trade agreements benefit all and that unions are consulted in the negotiations is equally crucial. In the midst of lockdown and social distancing measures implemented in most countries in the region, free trade negotiations continued over the past months.

First among these is the negotiation for the RCEP, with its latest round of talks in mid-April 2020 where the partner countries committed to conclude RCEP in 2020. The main concern of IndustriALL Global Union is not when and where the trade agreement will be signed or ratified, but whether trade agreements in the region comply with the 10 principles on trade agreements of IndustriALL, which aim to protect workers’ rights and the benefit of people.


Still no enforceable labour rights

ASEAN officials informed that participating countries have completed six chapters and work towards conclusion of the remaining 14 chapters. Still, there appears to be no commitment for the inclusion of enforceable labour rights, incorporation of ILO conventions and recommendations in the agreement. The non-public negotiations of the RCEP have left workers in the dark. Governments must have proper consultations with trade unions, the negotiating texts must be deliberated in parliament, state or provincial assemblies and local governments. Democratic due process should be adhered to.

The withdrawal of India from RCEP due to pressure from Indian businesses, farmers and civil society indicates that Indian people and government have concerns as to the possible influx of import products that might eliminate local businesses. This reflects the importance of one of IndustriALL’s principle that each country must be able to utilize policy space to regulate trade activities. The Indian government has every right to impose trade tariffs to protect sectors of national interest.


Countries should not be sued for just social and economic policies

In August 2019, IndustriALL affiliates in the Asia-Pacific sent letters to respective governments and requested to adhere to the 10 principles in RCEP negotiation process. Subsequently, the Malaysian government announced that member countries of RCEP had agreed to drop investor-state dispute settlements for now from the trade deal and to revisit the issue once the agreement is in force. The decision is commendable because every country should be free to implement social and economic policies in the interest of its people without threat of being sued by a publicly unaccountable arbitration mechanism.


International trade must ensure access to medicine and food

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens lives and livelihoods of workers across the region. At the same time, it might provide an opportunity for governments and workers to rethink the intertwining relationship between trade, human rights, and a solidarity economy. The pandemic might strengthen mutual support among nation states in South East Asia.

Given that some countries imposed export bans on medical products, the World Trade Organization (WTO) emphasized the role of international trade in ensuring access to medicines. Nevertheless, the WTO respects member country's policy space to protect public health and make life-saving medicine affordable through a flexibility provision of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

Export bans amid the pandemic asymmetrically impact least developed countries<s> </s>as they heavily rely on import of these products for domestic use. These countries do not have the manufacturing capacity to produce goods for local consumption. Hence, countries should utilize multilateral trade fora such as the WTO to mitigate the adverse impact of unilateral trade policies on LDCs.

It is crucial that trade facilitates people’s right to health and right to food. IndustriALL emphasizes that intellectual property regimes should help governments achieve sustainable development goals, not impede them. Life-saving medicine and personal protective equipment must be made available to workers and people throughout the health crisis.


Intensified cooperation between ASEAN countries in this crisis?

In fact, ASEAN has given a proactive response to COVID-19, calling for intensified cooperation when it comes to the provision of medicines and medical supplies, manifested by the development of regional reserves of medical supplies to cope with public health emergencies. The regional body also declared that it aims to ensure food security by utilizing the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve.

On RCEP though, South East Asian governments ought to ensure that the negotiation process of trade agreements is participatory and transparent. All stakeholders including trade unions should be consulted and workers’ interests should be protected in the agreements.

Free trade must aid the realization of universal human rights – everyone should have adequate living standard with sufficient food and affordable medicine or medical supplies.  


Annie Advientois IndustriALL’s regional secretary for South East Asia. IndustriALL Global Unionrepresents 50 million workers in 140 countries in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors and is a force in global solidarity taking up the fight for better working conditions and trade union rights around the world. For more information on the principles for free trade agreements, read <link news trade-deals-need-to-benefit-workers-too external-link>FES Asia’s previous interview with Annie Adviento.

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.

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