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Japan, RP sign trade pact, allowing flow of Filipino nurses

Japan, RP sign trade pact, allowing flow of Filipino nurses

HELSINKI - Japan and the Philippines signed a free-trade pact after overcoming the thorny issue of Filipina nurses seeking work in the world's second-biggest economy.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President Arroyo inked the economic partnership agreement in Helsinki ahead of the two-day Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) that begins Sunday, Japanese government officials said.

The deal with the Philippines will be the first of its kind for Japan because it includes landmark provisions on the movement of labor.

Under the agreement, a limited number of Philippine nurses and caregivers will be allowed to work in Japan on condition they pass Japanese qualification examinations.

"The agreement will strengthen the economic collaboration between our two countries by increasing flows of goods, persons, investments and services," the two governments said in a joint statement issued at the signing ceremony.

The trade pact will also remove tariff duties on more than 90 percent of trade in goods between the two countries.

However, some Philippine agriculture exports to Japan, including tropical fruits, and some Japanese exports of industrial goods to the Philippines will remain subject to tariffs.

Two previous deadlines for signing the pact were postponed as the two sides remained at odds on various issues, with Tokyo seeking a more open investment climate in the Philippines and Manila pushing to send more workers to Japan, mostly nurses.

Japan last year tightened visa regulations to crack down on the trafficking of sex workers after coming under pressure from the United States.

But the tougher visa rules led to protests in the Philippines, which feared that the restrictions would also affect legitimate workers. Eight million Filipinos -- 10 percent of the population -- work overseas and sent home $10.7 billion last year.

Amid frosty relations with closer neighbors China and South Korea over its wartime record, Japan has been seeking warmer relations with Southeast Asia, including through free-trade deals.

Since the re-establishment of diplomatic ties, Japan has become the top aid donor to the Philippines, contributing $9.4 billion over the past 23 years, or 51 percent of all foreign loans and grants to Manila in the period.

Japan's first free trade agreement, with Singapore, took effect in late 2002 and Tokyo has since signed deals with Malaysia and Mexico.

It reached a broad agreement with Thailand last year, while talks continue with Brunei, Chile, South Korea, Indonesia and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a whole.

The agreement with the Philippines "is a very ambitious, comprehensive economic partnership agreement, including liberalization of trade in services at a deep level," a Japanese official said.

"The Philippines agreed to open up trade in services more than they offered in the WTO talks," he added, referring to the stalled multilateral trade talks in the World Trade Organization.

After the global trade talks repeatedly failed to meet the deadline of agreement on basic structure of slashing tariffs on trade in farm and industrial goods, Japan, like other countries, has geared itself towards talks on bilateral and regional free trade pacts. AFP


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