Civil societies, trade unions raise concerns over PACER-Plus
Pacific civil societies and trade union groups are calling for the immediate suspension of PACER-Plus negotiations.
Almost 40 Pacific civil society organisations and trade unions groups have written letters expressing concern at the proposed regional free trade agreement PACER-Plus.
Representatives from Australia, New Zealand and 14 Pacific nations are meeting in Port Vila in Vanuatu this week for the next round of negotiations.
The agreement will cover trade, services, investment, goods and services, labour mobility and development when launched this year.
Mary Baines reports.
The open letter from civil societies has been signed by groups such as The Fiji Women's Rights Movement, WWF Pacific, the Pacific Conference of Churches and the Pacific Youth Council.
Another signee, The Pacific Network on Globalisation, or PANG, says the letter calls for the immediate suspension of negotiations until there has been informed dialogue with civil societies.
Its co-ordinator, Maureen Penjueli, says there needs to be social, cultural, environmental and human rights assessments undertaken to determine the impacts of the agreement's outcome.
And she says secret negotiation texts should be released to allow input from the groups.
MAUREEN PENJUELI: We do have something substantive to offer negotiators around services and investment but also in the labour mobility and development chapters. Now that governments are looking to wrap up negotiations pretty quickly, now is a good time to call for a halt and engage with civil societies.
Ms Penjueli says Pacific countries have made serious concessions, particularly in the areas of labour mobility and development assistance, in order to see the negotiations progress.
She says the agreement is unbalanced, favouring New Zealand and Australia, and limiting Pacific governments.
MAUREEN PENJUELI: From what we can see from the legal texts, most of the benefits will accrue to Australia and New Zealand and in fact we will tie up most of our government's ability to regulate, or to regulate in the interests of environment, culture, but also economics. The Pacific is very, very unique. We have a large subsistence economies, real challenges in terms of how we can develop.
Another signee, the executive director of Fiji Media Watch, Agatha Ferei, says the secret texts should be released and more transparency in the negotiation process is needed.
AGATHA FEREI: This information, it needs to be released. Otherwise it will be very difficult for them to make decisions that are practical for all those concerned. They need to be able to understand what's in place, what discussions are there, what information that needs to be in the discussion should be shared openly.
Concern has also been raised over the potential impacts PACER-Plus could have on the environment.
Hugh Govan, of the Fiji-based Locally Managed Marine Area Network, says there needs to be an assessment of potential environmental impacts of PACER-Plus.
Dr Govan says it is not known what the opening up of trade and deregulation of outside investment could mean for Pacific resource management systems.
HUGH GOVAN: If we are going to play with the big boys I think there should be much more investment in the environment department, to be able to regulate the development such as mining, logging, or even tourism industry and so on. The discussions need to go as far as possible in terms of how these sort of safe guards could be in any future agreements.
In another letter, The Australian Council of Trade Unions and the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions have written to their trade ministers to express concern over PACER-Plus.
The policy director at the NZCTU, Bill Rosenberg, says negotiations suit the interests of Australia and New Zealand, rather than the needs of Pacific Island countries.
Dr Rosenberg says the island countries could face significant losses in income from tariffs and the loss of jobs in small local industries if New Zealand and Australian demands are met.
BILL ROSENBERG: From what we know of the negotiations there's a very strong push from the Australian and New Zealand governments to reduce tariffs very substantially, where those governments are very reliant on tariffs on their income. Because many of the people living in the Pacific islands are subsistence farmers, they can't raise much from income tax and it would take a lot of work for those governments to switch to income tax or other forms of taxes.
But the Chief Trade Advisor of the Pacific Island Countries, Edwini Kessie, says PACER-Plus will help strengthen Pacific economies.
Dr Kessie says it will increase trade and investment in the region, create more business opportunities, stronger economic growth and more jobs.
He says it will mean improved market access for Pacific products and more development assistance to address supply-side constraints.
EDWINI KESSIE: One of the improvements being made in Pacer Plus is to have flexible rules of origin. So we are developing what is called a PSR schedule, and that schedule will take into account the level of manufacturing and processing in the Pacific island countries. So the expectation is that it [the Pacific] will be able to export more products to Australia and New Zealand.
Dr Kessie says a big part of the agreement is improving labour mobility for Pacific Islanders.
EDWINI KESSIE: The extension of the schemes to other occupational areas because currently the schemes are restricted to horticulture and viticulture. And the key demand for the Pacific Island countries is that the scheme should be extended to other sectors, aged care, and that kind of area.
Dr Kessie says many criticisms of PACER-Plus are misguided.
He says the agreement is not balanced in favour of Australia and New Zealand, and Pacific governments will not lose their ability to regulate.
He says it will not lead to business closures and job losses, and Pacific governments will not lose sources of revenue as a result of tariff reductions.
EDWINI KESSIE: We are trying to put the interests of the Pacific Island countries at the core, so very much would depend on the final shape the agreement takes but we are always constantly bearing in mind that the agreement should be of benefit to the Pacific Island countries. And two areas where they could get a lot of benefits would be the area of labour mobility and development assistance.
Negotiations are hoped to be concluded in July.
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