Philippine CSOs to ASEAN Gov’ts: Place people’s rights and needs over corporate profits

Statement of the Philippine National Organizing Committee (PH NOC) on the occasion of the 31st Meeting of the High-Level Task Force (HLTF) on ASEAN Economic Integration

 

As trade ministers converge for the 31st meeting of the High-Level Task Force (HLTF) on ASEAN Economic Integration this Feb 15-16, 2017, Philippine civil society organizations (CSOs) urge ASEAN heads of states to prioritize people’s rights and needs over corporate profits. With the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) Blueprint at the centerpiece of discussions, Philippine CSOs express concern over a number of issues revolving the current direction espoused by ASEAN’s economic integration.

Increasing inequalities and the rise of corporate power

Under the AEC blueprint, ASEAN economies are expected to become a single production and market base that seeks to facilitate the free flow of goods and skilled labor. But the current thrust of the AEC and the wider ASEAN integration process itself is influenced by neoliberal interests affirmed by free trade agreements wherein big businesses and transnational corporations remain its main drivers and beneficiaries.

The rise of mega-regional trade deals such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and bilateral new generation FTAs are also a growing cause for concern owing to its impending impacts on the country’s agricultural sector, on labor rights including those of migrant workers, women, marginalized sectors, access to cheap and life-saving medicines and a threat to national sovereignty. As part of ASEAN’s economic integration objectives, a wide range of ‘enhanced’ investment protection measures are increasingly being put in place an example of which is the notorious Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) – an investment provision that is present in various trade and investment treaties among ASEAN states and its major trading partners. The ISDS allows investors to sue governments over actions that ‘harm’ expected future profits – giving corporations the power to challenge state regulations and policies that are meant to protect public welfare and interest, including providing a living wage, implementing agrarian reform, ensuring health and safety of the public from hazards, sound environmental policies, and so on.

Informalization of labor market and the influx of migration

Even as the ASEAN Economic integration facilitates an even greater mobility of workers, the discussions around migration have been primarily focused on the mobility for skilled workers – providing freedom of movement for professionals in the region. The sectors that are expected to experience job growth such as transport and construction are also prone to be informal and vulnerable. In addition, the bigger challenge of protecting the rights of majority of migrant workers, especially women migrant workers, who are mostly found in semi and low-skilled sectors remain wanting.

We raise alarm over its implications including the uneven distribution of gains that can only exacerbate the wage gap between skilled, semi-skilled and low-skilled workers while creating fewer employment opportunities for women. The AEC’s focus on creating favorable conditions for corporate investments does not translate to women’s equal opportunity in the labor market by refusing to acknowledge differences resulting from gender stereotyping in labor roles—the negative effects are especially intensified in poorer developing countries. ASEAN’s neoliberal thrust only reinforces the status quo by increasing the pool of available labor without supporting the redistribution of social and economic rights or the transformative character of substantive equality for women in the region.

The neoliberal economic growth paradigm of ASEAN imbibes a “neo-patriarchal” approach by simply integrating women into the economy without a concern with the gendered assumptions behind that inclusion. The ASEAN economic goals are underpinned by systemic patriarchal views which fail to dislodge the gender division of labor that traps women in low-paid, unregulated, and unrecognized work.

Land, environmental degradation and the climate crisis

Peasant communities continue to bear the brunt of unequal trade practices. The deluge of heavily subsidized agricultural commodities from abroad has destroyed local food production systems in the countryside whose local products could not compete with cheap agricultural imports. The Philippines’ path towards self-sufficiency in key food commodities have been time and again undermined by the liberalization of agricultural trade that is set to intensify even more once the AEC becomes operational. Furthermore, prospects for genuine land distribution is increasingly being threatened by land and resource grabs brought about by trade and investment treaties.

The obsession to sustain the neoliberal economic model has taken its toll on the environment, widening resource inequalities and has aggravated the climate crisis in the region. The push for more corporate and foreign investments has put considerable pressures on local and regional biodiversity and natural ecosystems resulting in rapid degradation of land, water and forest resources. This business-as-usual scenario would also lead to increasing contribution of the ASEAN countries to global greenhouse gas emissions, further exacerbating the climate crisis.

Peace and Human Security

We stand firm with the conviction that seeking peace and stability in the region should start within the Philippines’ own borders. Prospects of lasting peace and internal human security in the region remain mired by investment interests that fuel militarization especially in indigenous and peasant communities in the countryside – the same haven of big mining and logging corporations. Unfettered investment and business activities are bound to result in increasing cases of land and other resource grabs as laws in ASEAN countries are made to accommodate both foreign investment interests. In addition, governments are compelled to provide security and protection to investments including protection by state forces especially in indigenous lands that are rich in natural resources.

On the other hand, territorial disputes also threaten peace and human security of peoples. These must be resolved in accordance with principles of a shared regional identity and commons, mutual cooperation and mutual benefit, rather than narrow chauvinist and xenophobic assertions. 

Human Rights and Access to Justice

The accelerated integration of ASEAN economies into the global market with an export-driven and resource extractive model of economic growth have resulted in negative impacts on human rights. Increasing cases of land grabbing, forced displacement of entire communities and loss of traditional livelihoods and access to natural resources, intensification of armed conflict and other human rights violations are driven by corporate investment interests. Furthermore, we raise alarm on increasing criminal persecutions against human rights defenders that work on issues of corporate accountability.

The AEC similarly lacks “intersectionality” perspective with its lack of attention to the diverse and compounded contexts of women, and other marginalized sectors such as persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, lesbians, gays, bisexual, and transgender persons, among others; who experience more barriers in accessing justice and seeking protections and remedies from human rights violations.

Life with Dignity                                  

Market liberalization, deregulation and privatization have led to the loss of traditional livelihoods and means of survival, and further exploitation of workers. They have also led to diminished public access to affordable essential services (electricity, water, healthcare, education and housing) and social protection. Instead of human capacity and capabilities development being geared towards addressing individual and community needs as a priority, they will increasingly be boxed in and reduced to catering to the imperatives of the regional integrating economy and big business.  A social dimension is missing in the ASEAN integration. The perspectives of ordinary people especially the vulnerable and marginalized aspiring for a life of dignity have not been integrated in the AEC. Thus, majority of the people in Southeast Asia continue to suffer from joblessness and social insecurity, increasing poverty and vulnerability, widening inequality, and life-threatening impacts of severe environmental degradation.

Recommendations

In light of these issues, we strongly call on the Philippine government and ASEAN heads of states to: 

1.     Ensure meaningful participation and representation of people’s organizations, women and men, especially from marginalized sectors, and local communities that are affected by economic policies and business projects within decision-making processes that affect their lives. In addition, we ask governments to adhere to the requirements for Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples especially in development and corporate projects that threaten their lands and livelihoods;

2.     Review existing national laws to ensure that corporate investments and activities comply with international human rights laws and standards;

3.     Agree on a set of business and human rights standards and in turn create a grievance mechanism that addresses disputes, claims and advises corrective action when these standards are violated, support and advance the process towards a legally-binding instrument on TNCs and Human Rights at the United Nations;

4.     Ensure transparency and accountability in trade and investment deals that are usually being negotiated without public consultation;

5.     Desist from joining unequal trade deals that favor corporate interests over people’s rights;

6.     Review all existing trade and investment agreements, and if necessary terminate agreements that do not serve the peoples’ interests;

7.     Guarantee social protection for all and reverse the privatization of public services like healthcare and education. Instead forge public-public partnership—state partnerships with non-profit groups like peoples’ cooperatives or social enterprises;

8.     Implement just and progressive tax systems;

9.     Reaffirm the state’s duty to protect and promote human rights and adopt a human rights-based approach towards development or investment projects;

10.  Work towards achieving transformative and substantive equality -- transforming the prevailing gender-based stereotypes and unequal relations and systemic oppression of women that maintain structural and gender inequality and inequity in the region. Take into account the systemic and intersectional dimension of discrimination, oppression and exclusion.

 

Philippine CSOs remain committed in working towards a just, equitable and humane Southeast Asian region by continuously advocating for and monitoring the implementation of all the recommendations stated above. 

 

[RMP-NMR, one of of the signatories of this statement, is a part of the Philippine National Organizing Committee (PH NOC) of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples Forum 2017]