AFTINET Parliamentary Forum on the RCEP trade agreement

September 12, 2019: AFTINET held a Parliamentary Forum on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement on Wednesday 11 September in order to inform Parliamentarians of the social and environmental risks of the agreement and provide an update on progress in the negotiations.

The Forum was hosted by Labor Senator Tim Ayres and speakers included AFTINET Convener Dr Pat Ranald, ACTU President Michele O’Neil, ANU Academic Dr Belinda Townsend, and ActionAid Australia Executive Director Michelle Higelin.

Senator Tim Ayres opened the event by outlining his concerns with the current approach to trade agreements both in terms of the provisions included in agreements and the negotiation process. He argued that this approach is underpinned by an assertion that trade agreements benefit everyone, but that the evidence for this is often lacking. He highlighted the particularly negative impacts that some trade agreements have had for developing countries and emphasised the need for an alternative approach to trade agreements that protects workers’ rights and has better social and environmental outcomes.

Pat Ranald provided an overview of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which is being negotiated between Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Japan, South Korea and the 10 ASEAN countries. Pat highlighted the social and environmental risks of proposed provisions that could extend medicine monopolies, undermine workers’ rights, and restrict governments ability to regulate services. She also addressed the social and environmental risks of proposals to include ISDS provisions that would enable corporations to sue governments if they implemented policies that undermined their profits.

Michele O’Neil outlined the ACTU’s concerns about the RCEP agreement, particularly their concerns about the inclusion of provisions that would increase the number of temporary migrant workers without first conducting labour market testing to identify if Australian workers are available to undertake this work. She pointed to evidence of exploitation of temporary workers because their visa is reliant on their employment, and they can be deported it they lose the job, which means it is difficult to challenge exploitative practices in the workplace. She argued that he employment ot increased numbers of vulnerable temporary workers also undermines workers’ conditions more generally.

Dr Belinda Townsend addressed concerns amongst health academics and professionals about the risks that the RCEP posed to access to healthcare, particularly in developing countries. She said that Leaked drafts of the intellectual property chapter revealed proposals by Japan and South Korea for provisions that would extend monopolies for pharmaceuticals in many of the low and middle income countries, which would increase the cost of medicines, delaying access to affordable generic medicines. Belinda also highlight that risk of ISDS provisions having a chilling effect on the development of new health policies. She highlighted the need for a more transparent and inclusive process for negotiating trade agreements and for the government to conduct health impact assessments for all agreements.

Michelle Higelin addressed the particular risks that the RCEP for poses for women and its potential impacts on poverty and inequality. She identified how the agreement could lead to increased privatisation of public services in developing countries, which can reduce the availability, accessibility and affordability of public services for women and low-income communities. She also highlighted the risks of ISDS provisions, including the high costs of cases, which reduces the amount of revenue that governments have to fund high quality and comprehensive public services.

The RCEP negotiations are ongoing. Media reports from a Ministerial meeting in Bangkok on 8 September suggest that negotiations have been slow, with Japan’s Economy, Trade and Industry Minister, Hiroshige Seko, saying that no new agreements were made. However, Governments continue to state that they are working towards the 2019 conclusion. The final negotiations for 2019 will take place in Da Nang, Vietnam from 19 to 27 September, with the aim of concluding in early November.