It is high time I would explain a bit on the regional political structure in South Asia and our work here on social protection, especially since the SAARC summit took place in Kathmandu, Nepal this week.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is to South Asia what the European Union is for Europe. It is the economic and geopolitical organisation of eight countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) that are primarily located in South Asia.Their combined economy is the 3rd largest in the world in the terms of GDP(PPP) after the United States and China. Their territories cover 3% of the land in the world but inhabits 21% of the world population. India is clearly the heavyweight in this structure, as it accounts for nearly 80% of SAARC’s economy. SAARC was created in 1985 and they meet around every 18 months, with the union officially based in Dhaka and their secretary based in Kathmandu.

While their goal was to move towards something like the European Union, it hasn’t been easy and it still remains very weak. The diversity of countries, their level of development or religion (Muslim, Budhist or Hindu) have made plans for free borders or a joint currency complicated. Despite a free trade pact in force since 2006, high tariffs and curbs on movement limit trade among South Asian nations to just five percent of their total trade. The grouping’s failure to foster closer ties over the past three decades has left the way open for China to step in. It doesn’t help that India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947 and are still arguing about borders. No later than Thursday, the worst militant violence in more than a year in the Indian part of disputed Kashmir killed ten people, including three Indian soldiers.

It remains a leverage and target for our political action to promote the right to social protection. While SAARC usually focus mostly on economic collaboration, finally, some seeds of social policies are emerging. At the Kathmandu Summit, the heads of States have released a 36 points Declaration which also talks about Social Protection and Labour Migration:
20. (Social Protection): The leaders acknowledged the special needs of the elderly, women, children, differently-abled persons, unemployed persons, and persons working at hazardous sites and agreed to develop and strengthen social protection for them and to share best practices in this regard.

21. (Migration ): They also agreed to collaborate and cooperate on safe, orderly and responsible management of labour migration from South Asia to ensure safety, security and well-being of their migrant workers in the destination countries outside the region.

Partly, this is due to the continued lobbying of our partners, especially the trade unions and SAR TUC, the regional confederation of trade unions, which met with duty-bearers, like the Nepali Prime Minister, to have them push for these issues during the summit. As an example, the South Asian labour forum, jointly organized by General Federation of Nepalese Trade Union (GEFONT), Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) & SAPE as a part of people SAARC took place just two days before the SAARC conference.

Note however that a much bigger challenge rises on the horizon. In South East Asia, ASEAN cooperation is much more advanced than in SAARC and 2015 should mark the beginning of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) between Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. This means free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labor, and a freer flow of capital. There are no mentions of any human or labour rights or social protection mentioned anywhere, it all seems to focus on economy, competitiveness and profit. In short, capitalism’s wet dream.

And this is only the beginning. Since 1997, the bloc began creating other organisations within its framework. ASEAN Plus Three was the first of these and was created to improve existing ties with the People’s Republic of China, Japan, and South Korea. By the end of 2013, ASEAN countries had signed 40 Free Trade Agreements, including five ASEAN+1 agreements with key East Asian partners (Australia/New Zealand, the PRC, India, Japan, and the Republic of Korea). The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), two of the 29 FTAs currently under negotiation, have massive economic implications. This was followed by the even larger East Asia Summit, which now includes India, Australia, New Zealand, United States and Russia.

Now, I might be wrong, but I can hardly imagine these Asian tigers prioritizing ensuring decent working conditions for their workers and building up social protection systems. Maybe take a moment and let it sink in: free trade with a bloc like this, access to economies including China, India, the USA, Japan and Russia. Can you imagine what this would do to social protection systems in place around the world? If I ever needed an argument to explain why WSM and our partners are focusing on the right to social protection in Asia, I think I have found it…