By Charles Santiago
Malaysian Member of Parliament
It’s the 27th time that ASEAN heads of state and world leaders have met to discuss the initiative for ASEAN integration, which deals with gaps in economic development in the region.
The formation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in the next six weeks, similar in concept to the European Union, which is characterized by a single market and the free flow of goods, services, and investment, has been a main focus of the meetings and has captured the imagination of regional and global economic observers.
ASEAN has consistently claimed that it works in the interest of the people. But economic integration, despite being fashioned to look as if it prioritizes the broader social welfare, in reality focuses only on Business ASEAN, and not Social ASEAN.
Business ASEAN, which includes trade deals such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the ASEAN-EU Free Trade Agreement, and the recently concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), promote multinationals, big businesses, and lobbyists.
Meanwhile, the social dimension of integration efforts by the 10 member countries has been sorely missing.
While the ASEAN Economic Community is said to be modeled on the European Union, it does not include bodies similar to the European Parliament or the European Works Council to allow workers, farmers, lower-income individuals, and indigenous peoples, to have a say in ASEAN affairs.
In fact, most of the meetings, negotiations, and discussions about the formation of the AEC were done without consulting civil society, trade unions, or human rights organizations.
As such, the aspirations of the people of ASEAN are missing entirely from the integration exercise.
The people of ASEAN are grappling with day-to-day economic issues affecting livelihoods, such as outsourcing, inequality within and between countries, migrant labor, and informal work.
It is important to note that declarations by the 10-member grouping, such as the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers and the 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 1 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 labor and secure profitable investments 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, during which thousands lost their jobs and saw their savings vanish.
Fast-forward to today and nothing has changed except for cheap rhetoric by ASEAN governments about promoting a sharing and caring ASEAN, closing the development gap, and reducing poverty and inequality.
As such it is imperative that ASEAN leaders agree to a binding ASEAN Social Charter to be implemented as a core component of economic integration. This Social Charter would secure commitments from all ASEAN member states to address the economic race to the bottom, ensure fair and equitable distribution of wealth, respect basic labor rights, and strengthen social protections for the disadvantaged.
In short, Social ASEAN will ensure that economic integration focuses on people over profits.
Dismissing the social component of the ASEAN Economic Community would mean the bloc and its member state governments are only interested in raking in the money at the expense of their own people.