The Asean Economic Community: A businessmen club shunning the workers?

660
Skilled workers in Cambodia for example would not benefit from higher wage with the ease of doing business within the AEC . - picture by WFTV

By Kazi Mahmood

Is the Asean Economic Community (AEC) a businessmen’s club, catering for their needs and bowing to their demands while it deliberately overlooks the plight of the regional workers?

A look at the AEC framework shows the dream of creating a unified community where everybody will be in a good place.

But the reality is turning to be a nightmare, with the promises to be expedited to a dreamland that turns out to be an exclusive club, inaccessible to those in the other ‘classes’.

This is reminiscent of the Hollywood movies where the proponents are given credits to be among the chosen ones, but only to be sent to an incinerator Island.

No. These comments are not too harsh. They are crude, but not vile. They are intended to seek an answer from the august personalities who conceived the idea of the AEC, and these personalities are the members of the famous Eminent Persons Group or EPG.

Whatever their ‘good’ intentions were, they appear to have been ‘torpedoed’ in the process of implementation.

Reading through the various comments from leaders, business stakeholders and seeing the rapid progress made in the AEC – for the business community – leads one to ask the one question: What about the regional workforce?

The only answer I have is they seem to be stacked aside as an inconvenient lot.

Well, with the AEC happily cosying to the business community, are the workers within the Asean community missing the gravy train?

Fears (not among the decision makers) are the unsuspecting public might fall victim to their own obscurity on their rights within the AEC framework.

Lets look at the progress made by the AEC in regards the smoothening of the ‘ease of doing business’ in the Asean.

To begin with, the business community is well served under the Asean Free Trade Agreement (AFTA). But the workforce is subjected to conditions and faces opposition from Asean member states on their movements within the AEC.

The following will give a clearer example of how the business community is given greater access to the Asean marketplace.

The CIMB Asean Research Institute (CARI) briefing in Kuala Lumpur showed how the AEC has evolved since its inception.

The AEC’s end goals include eliminating tariff barriers, reducing costs and enhancing competitiveness among Asean member states, adding that it has achieved substantial targets to date. NOTHING was mentioned about the fate of the workers!

The Asean is praised for tariff elimination which is on track through the AFTA, Trade facilitation has become more flexible, and the investment regime is much more open.

With so much care given to the business circle in the region – they are guaranteed all the facilities they need to expand their operations in within the Asean – the sad truth is that all these will be futile if it did not include the free movement of the workforce within the region.

This is a taboo subject among politicians from all class in the Asean countries. In some Asean nations, the political class is not aware of anything. They do not even have an opinion whether the workers in the AEC should be part of the community.

The Asean wants to see a rapid rise in its gross domestic product and it believes – rightly so – the businessmen will bring the foreign direct investment and will add value to the countries where they establish their business.

They are half-way right though, since, without a freer workforce that can move around the region without hindrances, only a type of workers will benefit.

This will perpetuate the workers class system that we have now. That is those who are well-educated will benefit and those unskilled, unsuspected individuals living in AEC countries will be fooled. And this might impact the GDP growth targets.

The obvious disparity in the freedom of movement of the businesses and of the workers is a unique situation indeed because if you are a business person you can move around the Asean, and establish your business with a certain ease.

But if you are a worker, whether you are a blue collar or a white-collar worker, there are rules and conditions that make it almost impossible for you to move around the region with ease.

The AEC is called a community for a good reason, but with the smooth progression of the business protocol and the deliberate abandonment of the rights of the regional workforce, once again something is not right.

The Asean movement itself seems at a loss on these issues.

The AEC crafted to some extent on the European Community model is possibly in a stronger position to avert the negative elements that have arisen from the Eurozone at the turn of this century.

Perhaps the Asean should start adopting what the EU has done, that is getting parliamentarians involved in the process of community building?