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Asia-Pacific : Global Union Federations in Region Condemn RCEP Trade Agreement

Education International and six other Global Union Federations joined together in the Asia-Pacific Region to condemn the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), signed on Sunday, 15 November 2020. The trade pact was negotiated in secrecy over more than seven years and many provisions remain unknown. The GUFs cited the danger that the agreement will undermine worker and trade union rights, sustainable development, and democracy.

RECEP will be the largest trade agreement in the world, Members of the RCEP make up nearly a third of the world's population and account for 29% of global gross domestic product. That is larger than the trading areas of the either the European Union or North America, the region covered by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. 

The agreement follows an earlier pact, The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which entered into force in 2018. It replaced the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which fell apart when the United States withdrew in 2017. Most provisions of the CPTPP, however, carried over from the TPP.

China was not involved in the negotiations of either Trans-Pacific agreement, however, they are part of RCEP. Some countries and industries are concerned that it may dominate the new agreement. That, among other things, prompted India to withdraw from the negotiations in November of 2019. The 15 members of RCEP are the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as Japan, South Korea, China, Australia, and New Zealand.

The GUFs of the “Unions for Trade Justice” were concerned that such a far-reaching and controversial agreement would be signed at a time when “COVID-19 cases rise, economies struggle to revive, health systems are overstretched, and job losses continue to mount”.

The agreement protects multinational companies their supply chains, investors, and traders. However, it provides even less protection for labour or the environment than the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP), which was diluted from the original provisions of the TPP.

The statement argues that, for many developing countries, the agreement will reduce their “policy space”. It states that, “Rules that prevent future governments from introducing regulations that are required to protect the public interest undermine the national sovereignty of countries where our affiliated unions represent millions of working people who will be deprived of their rights.”

The statement suggests that, “Regional cooperation based on a collective intent to promote decent work, quality public services and sustainable and inclusive development are a better solution.”

It concludes with a call to action at national level:

“We condemn this outcome and will continue working with our affiliates and allies to intervene in the enactment, ratification and implementation process of RCEP. We firmly believe that the trade union movement has an important role to play in challenging the current international free trade regime and ensuring that people’s rights and democracy are protected. We will continue our struggle to ensure the rights of workers and economic justice in Asia Pacific and beyond.”

The full statement can be found here.