Internationalist response to FTA needed

– John Edmundson

The New Zealand-China Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed on April 7 is the first free trade agreement China has made with any developed Western country. It is an historic deal for the Chinese government in its push to be fully accepted into the capitalist club.

The deal is historic for New Zealand too, for the simple reason that China’s economy is by far the largest that New Zealand has ever signed such an agreement with. With a growing middle class already numbering over 100 million, China offers a huge market for New Zealand businesses, particularly for luxury goods and services.

Reaction to the FTA has been mixed. Opponents of the agreement have ranged from the Green Party on the left, to New Zealand First on the xenophobic right. The CTU, eager to cosy up to Labour in the lead-up to an election that Labour is uncertain of winning, has come out in support of the agreement.

The critics of the FTA have claimed that the agreement in some way condones the poor human rights record of the Chinese government. This objection has become more strident with the recent Chinese crackdown on Tibetan protests.

The New Zealand government and the FTA’s supporters have countered with the point that New Zealand trades with all sorts of countries with all sorts of human rights records. In fact, government-led boycotts of countries over “human rights abuses” have a dubious record, with the independence of small, weak countries often being threatened by countries in the imperialist world on spurious grounds.

Fear of job losses

Attacks on the FTA over China’s human rights record are not the main issue, however. Criticism of the FTA from the left has largely been around the threat to jobs that the agreement might represent.

Helen Clark has stated that the agreement will not cost any jobs. However, this statement was made within the narrow context of the employment of skilled workers coming to New Zealand on temporary work visas. The bigger fear is that jobs in sectors such as the clothing industry will be threatened by an influx of cheap imports following the removal of tariffs. These jobs are important to many small towns which have been seriously affected by the restructuring of the last two decades.

The reality of course is that this process is taking place anyway. Tariffs on imported goods are so low already that New Zealand manufacturers cannot compete on price. Ironically, though, within 24 hours of the FTA being signed, the New Zealand clothing manufacturing company Norsewear was talking up the receipt of a huge new order, which the company linked directly to the signing of the FTA.

In announcing the deal, Norsewear’s General Manager Sandra Shilling said:

This is the biggest single order we’ve had in the history of the company… What I can tell you is that for each of these products, the Chinese have ordered three times the annual numbers we currently produce. The good news is that means more jobs for New Zealanders as all the product will be manufactured locally… The export potential is absolutely mind-boggling. We are talking in the multi-million dollar region so it’s all systems go for us right now.

Norsewear’s announcement notwithstanding, the threat to jobs is distinctly possible, and such job losses must be opposed if they are announced.

“Influx” of Chinese workers?

The other issue which has raised concern is the capacity for skilled Chinese workers to come to New Zealand on temporary work visas.

The CTU has given the skilled worker clause a guarded seal of approval, stating that in their view there should have been no consideration of migration in the agreement. CTU vice-president Sharon Clair responded to the signing of the agreement by commending the placing of a cap on the number of Chinese workers allowed into the country. The cap, she said, has allayed union fears of a huge influx of Chinese into the country. This “influx” was, of course, never going to be allowed.

Now that the agreement is a done deal, the CTU’s response is to advocate strong industry standards. “What needs to happen now is for industry standards to be developed to ensure skilled workers from China coming into New Zealand are not exploited and do not find themselves being paid, for their skill, the minimum wage.”

Surely this should have been a basic principle for the union movement already? But behind the remark is the fear that Chinese workers will drive wages down for “Kiwi” workers. This is the old “yellow peril” hysteria reinvented for the 21st century.

The cap written into the FTA is 1800 workers under the scheme at any one time, and a maximum of 100 in any one sector. Currently, according to the government’s own figures, there are 85,000 people from all over the world working in New Zealand on temporary work visas. So the agreement allows into New Zealand a number of skilled Chinese workers equivalent to barely 2% of the current number of overseas workers, and then under very strict conditions.

The unions should not have left it until this late in the day to decide it is worth protecting the pay and conditions of overseas workers, whether they come from China or anywhere else.

Workers’ solidarity the best protection

Overall, New Zealand is not the victim in this FTA. New Zealand is not Colombia. In third-world countries like that, opposition to free trade by imperialist countries can have, and often does have, a clear anti-imperialist and progressive character. New Zealand however, is an imperialist country, if only on a small scale, and China is still a third-world country, despite its phenomenal growth over recent years.

Imperialist countries maximise profit by exporting capital across international borders while simultaneously denying the right of workers to cross those same borders in search of jobs. It is in the greatest interest of New Zealand workers to unite with Chinese workers, rather than with New Zealand employers or their capitalist governments, to ensure their rights.

When it comes down to it, the only really meaningful gains workers ever make are those that are won in struggle. We can react to the panicked warnings about the coming of the “yellow peril” in different ways. We can buy into the panic, and support the calls for our own Great Wall to keep the Chinese out, whether it is Chinese goods or Chinese workers. Or we can approach this as internationalists.

The first choice might appear the easiest – just call on the government to keep the foreigners and their cheap products out. But the better approach is the internationalist one.

This means we need to build strong, militant, democratic unions in New Zealand that workers want to join. These unions need to reach out to the overseas casual workers who come here and work, and link with militant unions overseas.

It means the difficult task of unionising the low-paid Chinese workers who are already here, often working for below-minimum wages under the table in the fast food industry.

It means making connections with the struggles of workers in China fighting for better wages and conditions. Ultimately it is only because Chinese workers are able to be employed for 50c an hour in China that there is the potential for fear amongst New Zealand workers of an influx of low-paid Chinese workers coming to New Zealand to work.

New Zealand workers must identify first and foremost as workers, in common cause with workers in China and elsewhere. This is a vital ingredient in the building of a meaningful response to the machinations of the capitalists, whether they be in favour of protectionism or of free trade.

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