Business Beat; Making Free Trade Agreements Work
Byline: Melito Salazar Jr.
AT the recent APEC Summit in Vietnam, it was brought to the attention of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that while the APEC economies had 21 signed bilateral Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and 17 other FTAs in process in the Asia Pacific area, the Philippines was not in any of those lists. She immediately designated Doris Magsaysay Ho of the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) to take the lead in rushing one with the United States of America.
The sense of urgency is heightened by the fact that when many countries realized that the impasse in the Doha WTO negotiations will take some time to be sorted out, these countries immediately took steps to advance their economic interests by going into bilateral FTAs. Yet in the haste to make up for lost opportunities, the Philippines should take the essential steps to ensure that whatever FTA is negotiated will ultimately be for the benefit of the Filipino people, not just the vested interests of business groups.
There is the need for government to ensure that the Mid-Term Development Plan or even a longer plan is the framework in navigating through all the trade agreement negotiations. An industry-by-industry assessment as to competitive strategies together with the industry leaders is needed to attain maximum benefits from the FTA. This should involve the identification of products and services wherein the Philippines has the competitive edge and where the negotiating effort is to increase access to the markets of the FTA party. The tough decision must also be made as to which products and services are negotiable and thus, can be offered for market and other concessions. Given the sensitive nature of the exercise, the businessmen who actually own and run the enterprises should be involved in this process. If a product or service will not only be protected but also have market access facilitated, the companies involved should commit to continuing investments in facilities, workers' training and quality assurance. Being competitive, the firms will generate more jobs for the Filipino workers. For the other firms, there should be a transition period where the owners are helped to enter other industries and where workers are retrained for jobs in other businesses. …