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Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement a danger, community groups claim

The power of foreign corporations to sue the Australian government and the dilution of workers’ and citizens’ rights were among the concerns raised by speakers at the protest against the implementation of the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP-11). The protest was held in Farrer Place, Sydney across the road from 1 Bligh Street where the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) was hearing submissions on the TPP-11 on Friday June 15.

 

TPP rally. Photo: Suganthi Singarayar
TPP rally. Photo: Suganthi Singarayar

The TPP-11 is a multi-lateral free trade agreement between Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam that was signed on March 8, 2018 in Chile.

The United States was a signatory until January 2017, when President Donald Trump signed a presidential order to withdraw from the TPP-12 saying that his action was “great for the American worker”.

Former US President Barack Obama had pushed for the TPP-12 as benefiting a modern era of higher-skill, higher-wage jobs that would enable manufacturers who operate at that higher end to access new markets. He said that those companies chasing lower wages had already moved out of the United States with the implication being that those left would be moving to higher-skill, higher-wage jobs.

This speech was given in May 2015, at Nike Headquarters in Oregon, a company which continues to draw criticism for its outsourcing of manufacturing jobs in low-wage countries such as Vietnam, which is also a signatory to the TPP-11. Mr Obama believed that the TPP-12 had strong enforceable provisions for workers and the environment and that as part of the TPP-12, Vietnam would have to set a minimum wage, pass safe workplace laws and allow workers the freedom to join unions.

Speaking at the NSW Parliament House on March 9 on how the TPP-11 would affect women, Dr Patricia Ranald, Convener of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET), said although there’s a lot of rhetoric about free trade and how global competition means greater efficiency and lower prices, the reality is that free trade agreements can also put pressure on a race to the bottom for workers’ rights and the environment, which leads to increased inequality.

She said that women who are at the bottom of paid and unpaid work are the most affected in these situations. She also pointed out that Australia has very few and low tariffs. “The TPP is mainly about trying to achieve zero other barriers to trade and investment for global companies and they want rules to suit their interests.”

Speaking at the rally on June 15, Dr Ranald said: “The TPP-11 without the US is still a bad deal because it would increase corporate rights at the expense of peoples’ rights. It still includes special rights for global companies to bypass national courts and sue governments in unfair international tribunals over health, environmental and industrial laws.”

The TPP-11 includes an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism which enables foreign investors to sue governments if they believe that governments have not upheld their obligations under the Treaty. It has been seen as a law that allows Australian companies operating overseas to ensure their rights are upheld in a foreign country.

But unions and community groups are concerned about what it means when investors target the Australian government. While the TPP-11 does include a wide range of safeguards that would enable the government to undertake regulation in the public interest and while Australia’s tobacco measures cannot be challenged, the issue is the time and money often spent dealing with foreign investors in these disputes.

Readers may remember that the tobacco company Philip Morris Asia sued the Australian government in 2011 over the plain packaging laws under the Australia Hong Kong bilateral investment treaty. Just recently the ISDS mechanism was taken out of the EU Australia Free Trade talks that began on June 18.

Speaking at the rally, Andrew Dettmer, National President of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, raised concerns about the aspect of the Treaty in which workers from Canada, Mexico, Chile, Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam will have free movement into the Australian labour market without testing of the labour market.

Alan Hicks, National Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union division of the CEPU which represents the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Unions was also concerned about the lack of labour market testing which would ensure that Australians who are qualified for these positions are employed first.

Giving evidence at JSCOT on June 1, David Byers, interim CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia, the peak industry body for Australia’s exploration, mining and minerals processing industry, argued that the real-world experience showed “that the number of workers from China who are granted 457 visas has actually fallen in the two years since the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement came into effect.”

He said: “The statistics also show there’s been no increase in 457 visas granted to workers from Japan and Korea since FTAs with those countries came into effect in 2014. In any case, the six TPP-11 countries covered by temporary entry provisions – Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru and Vietnam – are not significant sources of temporary migration to Australia. In 2015-16 these countries accounted for 1.2 per cent of primary 457 visas granted, and in 2017-18 it was 1 per cent.”

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