The Maritime Union of New Zealand says that growing pressure to bring unskilled labour into Australia under a free trade agreement has confirmed its worst fears.
Maritime Union General Secretary Trevor Hanson says that proposals to allow companies to import unskilled Chinese workers into Australian ports and construction sites gave a clear message to New Zealand workers.
“This is the equivalent of a huge neon sign flashing out the warning that free trade deals will inevitably lead to a collapse in wages, conditions and workers rights. It is time we have a national debate on free trade, and get the issue away from the control of bureaucrats and private interest groups.”
The Australian Financial Review has reported the Chinese Government has put Canberra on notice it would demand Australia go further on the issue of temporary entry of workers in the free trade agreement now under negotiation.
Shipping, construction and mining are three key areas that Beijing has nominated as key to the labour negotiations that start at the end of this year.
The Chinese government has used separate World Trade Organisation negotiations to raise the issue of Australian port deregulation, by wanting to have ship crews loading and unloading ships, rather than local workers.
The Australian Financial Review said China might be interested in a point-to-point Chinese owned and staffed shipping line stretching from inland Australia to inland China.
Mr Hanson says the recent failed attempt by Hong Kong based multinational Hutchison to buy into the Port of Lyttelton earlier this year was an example of the “slippery slope of free trade.”
“Obviously the multinationals would much rather have low-cost labour employed under Chinese conditions working in New Zealand, just as they would in Australia. China is a police state where workers have no independent unions or right to organize, and those conditions are going to be coming down the line to us unless we start to question the free trade syndrome.”
Mr Hanson says New Zealand has been hypnotized with propaganda about the benefits of market access for New Zealand products to overseas markets.
“However no one seems to grasp that China will want something out of the deal, and they have now put it on the table for Australia. Why should the situation be any different in New Zealand?”
He says it is very important the issue does not get turned into a debate on race and immigration, but instead focussed on the real issue of free trade being used to play workers off against each other in a global race to the bottom.
“It is the old tactic of divide and rule, turning workers against workers, on a grand scale. The issue is about wages, conditions and the right of all workers to secure jobs and human rights. There’s no free in free trade for the workers.”
Mr Hanson says that if people want an example of the reality of work conditions under free trade, they should look at overseas workers in the New Zealand fishing industry.
“They are underpaid, over-worked, and as numerous reports have indicated suffer from poor safety conditions and are often abused and even assaulted. What happens when that situation moves ashore?”
He says the Maritime Union is planning for strong and co-ordinated national action if there is any attempt to undermine conditions through free trade agreements, and has offered its support to Australian unions.