The RCEP is a major undertaking with profound implications for the economies and societies concerned. The giant Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership between Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and the ten members of ASEAN (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) was signed on November 15. The deal will cover one third of the world’s population and economy. Yet, as appears to be the way with all trade agreements Australia is involved in, the RCEP has been negotiated and entered into with very little public scrutiny.

We should expect that trade agreements are subject to proper scrutiny and that unions and others in civil society, as well as business, have the opportunity for genuine input into the negotiations on behalf of those they represent. To date trade agreement negotiations have been conducted behind closed doors and Australia lags behind other countries and institutions when it comes to public scrutiny. This whole process in Australia contrasts with the experience in the European Union, for example. The EU has recognised legitimate community demand for the negotiating papers and final text to be exposed to public debate.

Unions have concerns with a number of elements of the RCEP but in this submission we will focus on key problems.

  • Alarmingly, as the right to regulate the aged care sector is not expressly reserved in RCEP, ratification could mean that the Australian Government loses the ability to regulate aspects of the aged care sector. The agreement should not prevent the re-regulation of essential Services. The Government needs to list aged care in reservations excluded from obligations in the Services Chapter.
  • The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety has exposed a system in crisis and has recommended increases in staffing numbers, increases in qualifications of staff and changes to requirements for quality of care and licensing arrangements. These are all areas of regulation restricted in the RCEP clauses. Since aged care has not been reserved, RCEP rules could prevent new regulation in these areas.
  • The Australian Government should not be signing a preferential trade deal with Myanmar while the military junta is in power. The military coup on 1 February 2021 suspended civilian government and effectively returned full power to the military, and the situation is getting worse by the day. The military is escalating its repression of the mass Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Workers and trade unions are at the forefront of the CDM, and are being violently suppressed by the military junta for participating in peaceful protests and strikes. Trade unionists have been arrested, intimidated, threatened and charged for participating in protests and strike actions; union leaders are on a military wanted list and are now in hiding; sixteen unions and workers’ rights organisations have been declared illegal by the military regime; and workers have been terminated or had wages withheld for participating in strikes and protests, and many are now struggling to feed their families.
  • Instead of entering into a preferential trade deal with Myanmar, the Australian Government should be implementing trade sanctions and cutting off all support to the military junta. If the Australian Government signs an RCEP that includes Myanmar, it risks legitimising the regime. Instead, the Morrison Government needs to follow the lead of the Biden administration, who announced on 29 March the immediate suspension of all US engagement with Myanmar under the 2013 Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA).
  • The Australian Government should be using trade agreements to improve working conditions and address issues of labour exploitation, including forced labour and child labour. RCEP contains no protections for workers’ rights or human rights: there is no reference to international labour standards or human rights standards, and no labour chapter.
  • The RCEP agreement entrenches the removal of labour market testing for all RCEP countries.
  • The inclusion of increased number of temporary workers who are vulnerable to exploitation.
  • The potential re-inclusion of Investor-State Dispute Settlement provisions. ISDS could be reinserted two years after ratification if parties agree.
  • The lack of transparency and accountability in negotiations.
  • There is no empirical evidence of significant economic benefits from the agreement.
  • No independent economic, social and health impact assessment.

This is not an exhaustive list. We share the concerns expressed about the impact of the RCEP in a range of other areas.

We endorse and refer the inquiry to the submissions of our affiliated unions, as well as AFTINET, for further treatment of these and other matters.