What’s wrong with the JPEPA?

by Philip Nemenzo

The signing of the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA) by President Arroyo and then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on September 9 in Finland ushered a new chapter in Philippine-Japan relations. It is a chapter that marks the selling of the Filipino soul.

According to the JPEPA, the Philippines will be able to export agricultural products and tropical fruits to Japan and close to 95 percent of our exports will enter Japan duty-free. Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said that this will have an immediate positive impact on farmers, fishermen and food processors.

While this may sound rosy, it comes with a fine print: Japan has very strict and unequivocal standards when it comes to food quality, and the touted benefit to the small farmer, fisherman or food processor is a myth. It will be the rich multinational corporations with their stringent production guidelines and strict quality control who will reap the benefits.

The JPEPA also stipulates that the two countries will remove tariffs on virtually all industrial products in their two-way trade within 10 years. The problem is that the Philippines is essentially an agricultural country while Japan is an industrial giant. Given our lack of self-sufficiency in agriculture and very few industrial products (if any), what shall we export to Japan that Japan no longer has? On the other hand, Japan can flood the Philippines with its high-tech gizmos and sell them at a very low cost because of the absence of tariff. This will be the death blow for the poor and struggling Filipino industrialist.

Many consider the opening of Japan’s labor market to nurses and caregivers under the JPEPA as heaven-sent. According to the agreement, Japan will accept up to 400 nurses and 600 caregivers from the Philippines within two years. However, they will only be allowed to work indefinitely if they can pass the qualification exams within specified time limits – three years for nurses and four years for caregivers.

What’s the catch? The exam is in Japanese! Can these poor, hapless Filipino women memorize by heart – within only 3 or 4 years – the 2,000 kanji characters needed to understand even just the exam questions? You tell me. In the meantime, during their brief stay here, Japan will have access to highly trained and caring health professionals at almost half the cost of a Japanese nurse or caregiver.

In response to the clamor of environmental groups that the JPEPA will turn the Philippines into Japan’s toxic waste dump site, the Japanese Embassy in the Philippines issued a statement saying that Japan will adhere to international agreements on environmental and waste disposal. Skeptics, however, feel that since bribes and grease money turn the wheels of Philippine bureaucracy, there is almost no way of preventing the entry of toxic garbage if the schemers are determined enough. Sadly, the DENR has admitted that we cannot even properly dispose of our very own waste, how much more those of others.

Mitsuo Sakaba, press secretary/director general for press and public relations of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said, “What I can say is that the agreement will be very positive for the Philippines and very positive for Japan, not only for trade but also for investment.” What we can say is that a poor country like the Philippines cannot negotiate from a position of strength, and thus, Japan is most certain to benefit more from the JPEPA than the Filipinos.

The JPEPA can only be implemented if it is ratified by the Japanese Diet and by two-thirds of the Philippine Senate. The Senate could either concur or not. There is no line item veto. Many senators have already vowed to conduct thorough inquiries about the JPEPA, while another said that it shall “go through the eye of the needle.”

This year has been declared the Philippines-Japan Friendship Year because it marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries. If this friendship is to be further strengthened, then the JPEPA should provide a true and honest framework based on mutual benefit and trust. Otherwise, it should be junked!

If it is to be ratified despite numerous misgivings, then it should be renamed at least, to avoid confusion and to uncover the hidden motives behind the altruistic mask.

Consider: JPEEA. Japan-Philippines Economic Exploitation Agreement. *