The Age, Melbourne
Govt under fire over China FTA
29 June 2005
(AAP) Workers’ rights and the environment are being sacrificed in the rush to sign a free trade agreement (FTA) with China, a public interest group says.
The Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET), representing 90 community organisations, urged the federal government not to open up trade with the world’s largest economy without safeguards for these issues.
The first round of FTA talks with China began in Sydney last month and coincided with the visit to Australia of the country’s second most powerful leader, Wu Bangguo.
Giving evidence to a Senate inquiry into Australia’s relationship with China in Sydney, AFTINET convenor Dr Patricia Ranald said trade should be used to improve labour standards.
"Trade agreements should be based on respect for human rights, labour rights and the environment, but both the Australian and Chinese governments are ignoring these issues in a rush to reach a deal," Dr Ranald said outside the inquiry.
"We’re going to continue to raise these issues, we believe that there is concern in the community about this and it (the FTA) is by no means a done deal ... we think it’s a really serious problem for any proposed agreement."
China’s labour laws were not enforced and workers’ rights were already under threat in Australia from the federal government’s proposed changes to industrial relations laws, Dr Ranald said.
"This is part of a global race to the bottom on labour standards, rather than trying to improve people’s labour standards," Dr Ranald said.
"We’re concerned that Australia seems to be joining this race to the bottom by reducing labour standards here as well with the proposed industrial relations changes."
Transnational corporations often subcontracted work to firms in China that accepted low bids and staff worked 12-16 hours a day, seven days a week to complete contracts without proper payment, she said.
Environmental pollution in China was rife and there were notorious cases of workers being injured because health and safety measures were appalling, she added.
An FTA with China would also threaten basic labour rights in Australia because cheap Chinese goods entering Australia with no tariff would put additional pressure on employers and workers to compete, she said.