The Morrison government is due to sign a trade agreement whose final stages have been secretly negotiated among itself and 14 other nations in the Asia-Pacific region, but the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) remains sceptical as to whether jobs for any Australians will come up as a result of the pending and imminent agreement.
The behind-closed-doors negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) between Australia and China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam are expected to culminate on Sunday in a virtual Zoom-type meeting to mark a free trade agreement that has been nearly a decade in its planning and negotiations.
Australia represents one of five countries – along with New Zealand, China, Japan and South Korea – which are already partners in various free trade arrangements with the remaining countries in the pact, who make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Together, in signing the RCEP, they will constitute 30 per cent of the world’s population and just under 30 percent of the global GDP, thereby making this pact the largest of its kind.
The ACTU’s reservations about the deal concern in its coverage of 2.2 billion people residing among the 15 nations, that Australian workers won’t be used at the preference for cheaper labour.
Citing the global COVID-19 pandemic, the current domestic economic recession, and Australia’s current unemployment and under-employment rates of 6.9 and 11.4 per cent respectively, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the ACTU possesses an uncertainty over how many or if any Australian jobs will be required within the FTA program.
“We need an independent assessment of the value of this deal for Australian workers,” said Michele O’Neil, the ACTU’s president.
“Workers deserve to know what is being negotiated on their behalf. The system is broken and anti-democratic,” she added.
As such, the ACTU has implored the Morrison government to commission an independent social, economic and health assessment of the RCEP to the expected immediate ratification of the pact between all of its international partners.
“The Australian trade union movement supports expanding exports and trade deals that are fair,” said O’Neil.
“Despite Government claims, past trade deals have delivered negligible benefits for the Australian economy and left Australian workers worse off,” O’Neil added.
What also raises a sense of trepidation for the ACTU are red flags raised about many of the signatory countries – specifically Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines and Thailand – possess histories of labour and human rights abuses, many of which are centred around child labour, forced labour for migrants, arbitrary arrests, and the detention and/or imprisonment of trade union leaders and workers.
“The deal includes countries where there [are] significant evidence of labour rights and human rights abuses such as China, Brunei and Cambodia,” O’Neil says.
“But we know of no provisions in the agreement to deal with issues like forced labour or child labour,” O’Neil added.
The concerns of O’Neil and the ACTU are well-founded.
- In Cambodia, where its Trade Union Law was violated to the points where some unions were prevented from legally registering and operating in the way of establishing actions of collective bargaining, workers’ rights and proper working conditions;
- In Indonesia, female domestic workers in the Middle East continue to face abuse by employers, including long working hours, non-payment of salaries, and physical and sexual abuse;
- In Singapore, labour exploitation occurs on many fronts. Foreign migrant workers are subject to labour abuse and exploitation through debts owed to recruitment agents, non-payment of wages, restrictions on movement, confiscation of passports, and sometimes physical and sexual abuse;
- Also in Singapore, foreign domestic workers – incidentally, barred from joining, organising, and leading in unions – are still excluded from the Employment Act and many key labour protections, such as limits on daily work hours;
- And in Thailand, migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are vulnerable to physical abuses, indefinite detention, and extortion by Thai authorities; severe labour rights abuses and exploitation by employers; and violence and human trafficking by criminals who sometimes collaborate with corrupt officials.
In an open letter to then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the summit, Human Rights Watch regional directors Brad Adams and Elaine Pearson wrote: “We recognise that your government has an interest in forging closer trade and security ties with ASEAN members. At the same time, a number of ASEAN leaders preside over governments that deny basic liberties and fundamental freedoms.
“These governments routinely commit serious human rights violations, crack down on civil society organisations and the media, and undermine democratic institutions by allowing corruption to flourish. Lack of accountability for grave abuses by state security forces is the norm throughout ASEAN.”
Meanwhile, O’Neil sees the potential that such a wide-ranging FTA can achieve, but hopes that the Morrison government possesses a vision of execution of the process, something which the ACTU cites that the government has yet to address.
“The agreement could also open up essential services like health, education, water, energy, telecommunications, digital and financial services to private foreign investors and restrict the ability of future governments to regulate them in the public interest,” said O’Neil.
“We need greater accountability and oversight to protect Australia’s national interest in this process,” she added.
Also by William Olson:
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