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ASEAN trade deal may not employ Australians – ACTU

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 ACTU’s concerns are justified, given its shortcomings in FTA’s in the recent past, as was the case with a 2015 arrangement with China (ChAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) of 2018.

“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.

From a 2018 Sydney summit detailing the various broad category of human rights abuses in ASEAN member nations, the Human Rights Watch organisation submitted a paper where it cited:

  • 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.


Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was asked to find common ground with ASEAN partners on FTA’s and human rights (Photo from abc.net.au)


“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.


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  1. leefe

    “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.”

    Oh goody. We fit right in, then.

  2. wam

    There is nothing here of any interest to governments over the last 7 years.
    Indeed robb erred so badly with the China FTA that the chinese gave him a part-time job putting $880k on top of his pension. Funny that 88 is double happiness. Even funnier he began his new job the day before the election.
    Once again labor joined in with congratulations instead of exposing the greedy prick.

  3. Lambchop Simnel

    Much of FTA neoliberalism has been about dismantling OHS, civil rights in general and community rights, against the interests of transnational corporations and their local lackeys (rather than democratising dependent colonial and neo colonial states across the globe).

    But people can’t seem to fill in between the lines because the info vacuum created that has come with a weakened civil society and politics obscures the class nature of global politics and the inevitable shift back to feudalism.

    There are no initiating visionary leaders anymore, only the likes of Morrison and Trump; only guard dogs for the oligarchy.

  4. Lambchop Simnel

    Cant get back because the quota is filled for now, but the SMH and Eryk Bagshaw did a report on this so scant n detail, so inflated with nebulous rhetoric for this Asian FTA, something again drawn up largely in secret and not covered by MSM, that again I ask, “what are they hiding?”.

    Whatever it is, it must be against the interests of ordinary people and no doubt involves TNC’s, ISDs, legalised secrecy, legalised environmental damage and imported labour. Apparently Simon Birmingham is the culprit this time, but once again details are obscured..how do they dare keep such information from the people they are supposed to represent!

    When we were kids, we learned that when the grown ups go stum, some thing unpleasant is to follow.

    Our elders, who worked so hard to provide future generations with a rational democracy, must turn in their graves as the Quislings go about their cold blooded destruction.

  5. Lambchop Simnel

    Shows how dumbed down the public is that even better educated sections dont grasp what this is about.

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