Negotiations for the China-Australia free trade agreement (ChAFTA) were completed in June and it is currently being examined by two parliamentary committees. After this process it will go before the parliament before coming into force.
At the moment Labor are proposing that some changes be made to the agreement. Like all free trade agreements, this latest deal threatens to lower wages and conditions for workers.
The deal permits Chinese companies to bring in their own semi-skilled and low-skilled workers for large-scale projects over $150 million that they have at least a 15% stake in. The agreement doesn’t require companies to advertise the jobs locally first.
Labor are under pressure from unions, like the CFMEU and AMWU who are running campaigns criticising the agreement, and the Victorian Trades Hall Council who organised a rally in Melbourne against the agreement at the end of August. The Abbott Government has responded to the campaign by accusing Labor and the unions of anti-Chinese racism and xenophobia.
The reality is both the major parties have a strong commitment to free trade agreements that undermine the living standards and working conditions of ordinary people. They both prioritise policies that protect the interests of big business, often at the expense of workers. Both parties are also more than happy to play xenophobic politics when it suits them.
Labor’s Opposition Trade Spokeswoman Penny Wong urged the party in June to abandon what she called the ‘false panacea’ of protectionism and embrace free trade. Wong has articulated the party’s opposition to the latest free trade agreement as being about a preference for multilateral agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) over bilateral agreements.
The TPP – the economic wing of US attempts to stifle Chinese expansion – is an even more brutal agreement than ChAFTA. It would see medicine prices rise, labour standards fall and allow individual companies to sue nation states if local regulations (safety, environmental, etc.) impact on profits. If Labor were genuinely against agreements that hurt workers it could not possibly support this disastrous proposal.
For its part, the Abbott government is all too happy to inflame xenophobic and anti-Chinese sentiment when it’s convenient. In the same week that it accused Labor of xenophobia the government used the issue of foreign nationals from China owning homes to divert attention away from its own role in exacerbating the housing crisis.
Joe Hockey announced in August that six foreign nationals are being forced to sell homes they acquired inappropriately. This is a cheap attempt to blame Chinese investors for the worsening housing crisis. The reselling of six houses is an absolutely meaningless gesture for the tens of thousands of people on public housing waiting lists across the country and the millions suffering rent and mortgage stress.
Neither party has any answer to the problems facing ordinary working people, such as falling wages, housing affordability and the increasing cost of living. On the contrary, both Labor and the Liberals are committed to negotiating free trade agreements that will make these problems worse!
Rather than coming up with policies that improve living standards for ordinary people, both parties are happy to use xenophobic or racist propaganda to distract from their true commitment: guaranteeing ever-increasing profits for their big business backers.
While its absolutely correct for the unions to oppose free trade agreements they should be doing so on the basis that they pit ordinary workers of different nationalities against each other in a race to the bottom while bosses laugh all the way to the bank. The best way strengthen opposition to free trade is to build working class unity across borders.
We need to build a political movement of and for the working class that isn’t afraid to oppose both anti-worker free trade agreements and the capitalist system that gives rise to racism and xenophobia.
Such a movement would be the first step towards building a socialist society, where through democratic ownership and control of the means of production we can eliminate the need for dog-eat-dog competition between workers and provide decent jobs, homes and services for all.
By Chris Dite