FTA talks with Japan shaky

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Thailand may not benefit from a prospective free trade agreement with Japan if the other side refuses to allow Thais to work in its service sector, trade negotiators said yesterday.

During a public hearing on the FTA, Virachai Plasai, deputy director-general of the International Economic Affairs Department, said both sides still need to reach an understanding on the movement of service professionals.

Trade negotiators have asked their Japanese counterparts to eliminate restrictions on traditional Thai massage and spa therapists and chefs working in Japan. They hope Japan will agree after they won the same rights under the Thai-Australian FTA.

Japan has agreed to allow 100 Thai nurses in every year to take care of the elderly, said Pisan Manawapat, deputy permanent secretary for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, who leads the team negotiating with Japan. But Japan requires the nurses to undergo training there for three years before they are given jobs earning 30,000 yen (Bt11,000) a month.

In reality, however, Thais face big hurdles in securing work permits and visas, which would be approved on a case-by-case basis, even though they are fully qualified in their field.

Negotiators are pushing for higher salaries and less restrictive immigration procedures, Pisan said.

Some hearing participants suggested that if Japan will not grant entry documents for Thai workers, the government should scrap negotiations.

Virachai said visas are a big sticking point. The Japanese government enforces a complicated and lengthy process for Thais wishing to apply for a visa to even visit Japan.

“If we aren’t successful in pushing Tokyo to relax the restrictions on work permits and visas, Thais may not benefit from the FTA. An FTA may allow Thais to invest in Japan but in reality, not many investors have the capacity to do that due to the high cost of setting up an office in Japan, which is quite an expensive country,” he said.

While both sides are still far apart on the issue, they may set up a joint committee to work out differences, he said.

Japan in turn wants further liberalisation of local financial, telecommunications and construction industries, particularly to allow its carmakers to provide auto loan services to local customers.

But, auto loans are part of the financial services sector, which Thailand is not ready to open.

Japan has insisted that Thailand at least make a commitment to open the financial services sector in the near future, Virachai said. Thailand has resisted.

Nonetheless, Pisan was optimistic that the two sides would be able to reach an agreement on the many issues by April. After that it would take about two more months to draft the legal text.

Published on February 11, 2005

Wichit Chaitrong

The Nation

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