What does the RCEP trade deal mean for women in the new COVID-19 reality? 


Explainer: What does the RCEP trade deal mean for women in the new COVID-19 reality? 

Despite sustained community opposition, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) was signed by the Australian Government in November last year after eight years of negotiations. The agreement, pushed through under the cover of the global pandemic, is now moving its way through the ratification process and will likely become Australia’s newest trade deal.  

The Government has said that the RCEP will stimulate economic growth, rebuild trust in the multilateral system and support our neighbours in Asia and the Pacific to recover from COVID-19. But does this rhetoric match the reality? 

As with all trade agreements, the devil is in the detail, so we’re digging into the RCEP text to find out what this agreement really means for women across the region and if it offers any solutions for low-income countries struggling with the impacts of COVID-19. 

What is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement?

RCEP is an agreement between Australia and 14 other countries across the Asia Pacific region including: Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. Together these countries account for almost one-third of the world’s population, making RCEP one of the world’s biggest trade agreements. 

In its simplest form, the RCEP agreement governs trade and investment between its member governments. The RCEP includes a set of rules that impact on domestic policy from the way we manage our public services, to workers’ rights and environmental regulation. The agreement includes a series of rules that can have negative impacts on gender equality, human rights and the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals.  

How will the RCEP impact on women’s rights and gender equality?

Women’s access to healthcare could be restricted. 

The RCEP risks undermining women’s access to healthcare and other public services by reducing trade tariff’s (taxes), which are a critical source of revenue in low-income countries. Research shows that Malaysia will lose almost US$2.1 billion per year because of RCEP tariff cuts, while Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam will lose $800 million, $334 million and $192 million per year respectively. This is particularly concerning at a time when governments urgently need more resources to fund COVID-19 response and recovery initiatives. 

Women farmers are disadvantaged. 

RCEP also puts women farmers at a disadvantage with intellectual property rules that establish monopolies on seeds. These rules can prevent women farmers from undertaking the traditional practice of collecting, saving, selling and reusing seeds. This can have devastating impacts on women farmers who lose potential income from selling seeds and will see their costs increase as they must purchase seeds from multinational corporations.  

Workers’ rights are threatened. 

Women workers are also impacted by RCEP rules that increase the market access, power and flexibility of international corporations, without including any enforceable labour rights protections. This builds on a global economic model that keeps developing countries at the bottom of global supply chains and fosters a race to the bottom on wages and conditions, with women workers bearing the brunt of low-wages and exploitative working conditions.   

What about COVID-19? Will RCEP support response and recovery efforts in low-income countries?  

The Government says that the RCEP will support countries across Asia to recover from COVID-19. However, there is no reference to the pandemic in the RCEP text and there is little evidence to show that the agreement has been designed to respond to the challenges emerging from the pandemic.  

It is particularly concerning that RCEP does not include any provisions that support equal access to medicines at a time when governments, particularly in low-income countries, are facing challenges providing affordable access to COVID-19 medicines and vaccines. 

The agreement also constrains governments’ regulatory power. For example, the RCEP restricts governments from supporting local industries that are critical to response and recovery efforts, such as manufacturing, pharmaceutical and agricultural industries. This is despite strong evidence that these industries are vital to ensure equitable access to medicines and healthcare, and to maintain food security in the wake of the pandemic.  

Is there anything to celebrate?  

When it comes to trade policy, it is often the case that we celebrate the provisions that are excluded from trade agreements, rather than the provisions that are included! This is particularly true with the RCEP. Early versions of the agreement included a range of provisions that would worsen access to medicines, strengthen the power of big tech companies, and enable corporations to sue governments for policy decisions that impacted on their profits. It is a testament to the sustained campaigning of civil society organisations across the region that these provisions were removed from the final agreement. This is an important victory to celebrate! 

What are we asking the Government to do? 

ActionAid made a submission to the Parliamentary inquiry into RCEP asking the Government not to ratify the RCEP in its current form given the risks to gender equality and human rights. We’re calling on the government to instead review and reform the RCEP to ensure it upholds women’s rights and supports member governments to respond to and recover from the pandemic. 


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