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Govt pledges wage safety on trade deal

The Press, Christchurch

Govt pledges wage safety on trade deal

7 March 2008

The Government has pledged that its free-trade deal with China will not threaten the wages and conditions of New Zealand workers.

The agreement to remove tariffs on Chinese imports, due to be signed in Beijing on April 7, came under fire in Parliament yesterday from the Greens and New Zealand First.

The two Government support parties questioned the wisdom of a free-trade agreement (FTA) with a large, low-wage economy and urged the Government to reveal the contents of the deal.

The FTA will be China’s first with a developed country and is being touted by Prime Minister Helen Clark as New Zealand’s biggest trade breakthrough since Closer Economic Relations with Australia more than 25 years ago.

"I’m not going to go into details (of the deal) at this stage," said Acting Trade Minister Annette King.

"We are still negotiating with China but ... the Government would not contemplate any agreement which would provide threats to wages and conditions of New Zealand workers.

"Our minimum labour, health and safety laws are not for negotiation."

NZ First co-leader Peter Brown asked the Government if it accepted China was a low-wage economy with serious human-rights problems.

King said China had one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and the FTA would not stop New Zealand from pushing for improved human rights there.

"They do have problems with human rights but they are issues that we raise with them whether or not we have a free-trade agreement," she said. "That will not stop."

However, King declined to say whether there would be any specific clauses on human rights and labour standards in the agreement.

Green MP Keith Locke said he was concerned that removing tariffs on Chinese goods would seriously damage "what is left of New Zealand’s manufacturing industry".

"It is very hard for our manufacturers to compete with low-wage production in a country where there are no effective labour laws and weak environmental standards."

Clark had rejected allegations of excessive secrecy.

However, she conceded on Monday that the public would not see the contents of the FTA until after it was signed and parliamentary scrutiny began.

Studies estimate the FTA’s worth at $200 million to $400m every year over the next 20 years.