BY CHARLES SANTIAGO
NOVEMBER 21 — It’s the 27th time that Asean heads of states and world leaders, such as yourselves, will be meeting to discuss the initiative for Asean integration, which deals with the gaps in economic development in the region, besides meetings with other dialogue partners such as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the US.
The formation of the Asean Economic Community in the next six weeks, similar to that of the European Union, which is characterised by a single market and the free intra-regional flow of goods, services and investment will be the main focus of the meetings and has captured the imagination of global and regional economic observers.
Asean has been mouthing that it works in the interest of the people. But the economic integration, fashioned to look as if it prioritises the welfare of the people, only focuses on Business Asean and not Social Asean.
Business Asean, which includes the free trade agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, European Union-Asean trade deal or the recently concluded Transpacific Partnership Agreement, promote multinationals, Asean big businesses and lobbyists.
The social dimension to the integration efforts by the ten member countries — Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia and the Philippines — is therefore sorely missing.
While the Asean Economic Community is said to be tailored after the European Union, it does not have bodies such as the European Parliament or the European Works Council to allow workers, farmers, fishermen, people from lower income groups, aborigines, to have a say on Asean affairs.
In fact much of the meetings, negotiations and discussions about the formation of the Asean Economic Community were done without consultations with the civil society, trade unions, human rights organisations and workers’ groups.
As such, the aspirations of the Asean people are completely missing in the integration exercise.
And these people are grappling with day to day issues affecting their livelihood such as outsourcing, inequality within and between countries, migrant labour and informal work.
It is important to note here that declarations by the 10-member grouping, such as the Asean Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, Asean Human Rights Declaration, have not been effective due to their non-binding nature.
Asean leaders gloat that the region represents over 500 million people and a gross domestic product (GDP) of over one trillion US dollars.
But economic integration in the region thus far has been nothing but a race to the bottom with domestic and global capital seeking to exploit cheap labour and in search of profitable investment at the expense of the workers and people of Asean.
For example, the withdrawal of speculative capital from Southeast Asia led to the Asian financial crisis, where thousands lost their jobs and saw their savings vanish.
Fast forward to today and nothing has changed except for cheap rhetoric by Asean governments of a sharing and caring Asean, closing the development gap and reducing poverty and inequality.
As such it’s imminent that you agree for a binding Social Asean Charter to be implemented as a core principle of the economic integration to get the commitment of the Asean member states to address the race to the bottom, to ensure fair and equitable distribution of wealth, to observe basic labour rights and to strengthen social protection for the disadvantaged.
In short Social Asean will ensure the economic integration will focus on people over profits.
Dismissing the social charter in the Asean Economic Community would mean the bloc and governments are only interested in raking in the money at the expense of their own people.
* Charles Santiago is a member of Parliament Malaysia.