Everything you ever wanted to know about free trade, the RCEP deal, and the ActionAid community’s campaign to transform trade for women. Click to skip to each section.
Free trade agreements (FTAs) are international treaties between two or more nations that set rules regarding trade and investment.
There is increasing recognition globally that trade deals are almost always rigged in favour of multinational corporations. In effect, they increase the rights of large corporations at the expense of everyday people. We know that free trade has significant negative impacts for women’s rights and gender equality around the world, including undermining women’s access to decent work and public services.
In Australia, we have already entered into 11 FTAs with 7 still under negotiation. One of the most high profile FTAs that Australia has recently entered into is the TPP, which was signed last year. Globally, there are more than 3000 FTAs.
Australia is currently involved in negotiations for a large new free trade agreement, called the ‘Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership’ (RCEP). It is a deal between Australia and 15 other nations, who together account for more than half of the global population.
This deal is a major risk for women’s rights and equality in low income countries that are part of it, as well as in Australia.
ActionAid is committed globally to promoting women’s rights and fighting for economic justice for women. This year, ActionAid has launched an international campaign focusing on women’s decent work, unpaid labour, and access to public services.
In Australia, our campaign is focused specifically on stopping the Australian Government from signing the RCEP trade deal, as in its current form it is likely to undermine women’s access to decent work and public services, and increase their unpaid labour. We are also campaigning for the Australian Government to take gender into account when assessing future trade deals and forming policies around trade. This year, we have an important opportunity to influence the negotiation of RCEP in Australia in June, and work with our allies to make sure the Australian Government rejects this deal.
Free trade agreements like RCEP tip the scale in favour of corporations at the expense of women’s access to decent work and public services, particularly in low income countries.
These deals do this by:
1. Undermining the government’s ability to provide public services like schools and hospitals.
Public services like healthcare, transport, and education are a critical part of ensuring that women’s basic needs are met, and by doing this they enable gender equality. Public services reduce women’s unpaid work and increase their ability to access decent work. For example, if a family member becomes sick, having a quality public hospital nearby can mean the difference between having to take care of the family member while they are sick and being able to work.
Free trade agreements, however, generally require a reduction of tariffs as part of the deal, which reduces government revenue available for public services. In addition, free trade agreements also encourage governments to privatise public services, which often lowers the quality of the service while increasing costs.
2. Threatening women’s access to decent jobs.
Women in low income countries are often smallholder farmers or involved in local businesses, which are hit the hardest when free trade agreements force countries to allow these sectors to be flooded by large multinational corporations. These corporations also often threaten women’s land rights as they buy up large amounts of low cost land for their operations.
At the same time, free trade agreements encourage large multinational companies to open operations in manufacturing work like the garment sector, driving down wages and undermining worker’s rights. Some trade deals even create so-called “special economic zones” where normal labour rights and standards may not apply.
3. Increasing the exploitation of vulnerable groups, especially women migrant workers.
Free trade agreements also often have chapters which increase the amount of temporary migrant workers, generally people who come from low income countries to work in countries of the global north like Australia.
While temporary migration in theory can provide an avenue for women from low income countries to earn higher salaries, in practice these women often end up in poorly paid sectors where they are more vulnerable to exploitation. Asian Women at Work have published research showing that migrant and refugee women working in Australia have been frequently underpaid, received incorrect leave entitlements, were unfairly dismissed, bullied and harassed and suffered from bad health due to their work . And because of the conditions of these temporary worker visas, if women want to leave their employer due to exploitation or rights violations, they often face deportation.
4. Prioritising corporate interests over public good.
A final way that free trade agreements pose a serious threat to women’s access to decent work and public services is through the “Investor State Dispute Settlement” (ISDS) mechanism. This effectively allows multinational corporations to sue governments if the government threatens their profits. We’ll talk more about this below, but in terms of women’s rights – UN experts have noted that governments bound by this clause are less likely to pass laws essential for women’s rights for fear of being sued.
As mentioned above, RCEP includes a clause called the ‘Investor State Dispute Settlement’ (ISDS), which is a mechanism allowing multinational corporations to sue governments if they feel a change in national law or policy will impact their profits. Because ISDS cases are very costly, they are mostly used by large multinational companies that are already very powerful, including tobacco, pharmaceutical, agribusiness, mining and energy companies.
For example, if a government tried to introduce an initiative to subsidise the price of a crop grown by a women’s collective, technically a foreign corporation who is importing that crop could sue the government for threatening their ability to profit from their imports. There have been numerous ISDS cases throughout the world which have resulted in governments paying millions of dollars to foreign corporations for nothing more than attempting to regulate in the interests of their people.
Even if the government wins a case against a company, they often have to foot the bill. The Philippines is reported to have spent $58 million in legal costs to defend two cases; this money could have paid the annual salaries of 12,500 teachers.
You have probably heard about tobacco company Phillip Morris trying to sue Australia over its 2011 introduction of plain packaging laws. That was also done using ISDS.
To do this, Phillip Morris moved some assets to Hong Kong in order to claim they were a Hong Kong company and sue the Australian Government using the ISDS clause in the Hong Kong-Australia Investment Agreement. It took over four years for the ISDS tribunal to decide in December 2015 that Philip Morris was not a Hong Kong company, leading the government to win the case . Even still, Australian taxpayers were stuck with a $12 million bill to cover legal costs .
Big trade deals like RCEP can also have negative environmental impacts, and make it harder for governments to respond to climate change, which is disproportionately impacting women around the world.
These deals can contribute to climate change and other environmental issues by encouraging companies to move their manufacturing and polluting activities to countries with lower environmental safeguards.
Free trade agreements like RCEP also threaten action on climate change by giving corporations the right to sue governments for bringing in new environmental regulations, such as laws to reduce carbon pollution. Many of the cases currently being considered under this part of trade deals, (see more under the ISDS issue discussed above), involve mining companies suing governments for foregone profits due to environmental regulation.
Some trade deals now include a chapter on the environment that covers some of these issues. In general, however, these chapters don’t contain any binding commitments, and so don’t have any real power to address these concerns.
The RCEP negotiations are meant to conclude at the end of 2019. Prior to that, there will be a round of negotiations held in Melbourne from 28 June – 3 July.
The negotiations in Melbourne present a key opportunity for supporters in Australia to come together and ramp up the pressure on the government to reject this dodgy deal. To participate, make sure you’re on ActionAid’s email list and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to find out what local groups have planned for the negotiations. There are plenty of ways to show your solidarity either in person, or from afar.
The longer term goals of this campaign are to influence the Australian Government’s approach to trade, so that the impacts on women’s rights are always taken into account, the harmful parts of trade deals for women and low income countries are taken out, and women are represented in the negotiation process.
This approach is known as ‘gender-just trade’.
Wherever you are – in Australia or the world – there are plenty of ways you can take action and help win the campaign to stop RCEP.
Before you do anything else, make sure you have signed the petition calling on the Australian Government to say no to RCEP.
Look into joining your local activist group and find out how you can get involved with the campaign in your community.
Watch our events page to find out if there is a campaign event happening near you. If you’re in Melbourne – keep a special eye out for the events taking place towards the end of June around the RCEP negotiations.
Donate to help power the campaign and make sure we have the resources to run hard-hitting stunts, grow public support across Australia, and use creative tactics to target key decision-makers.