China trade deal a blunder

It is difficult to quantify the size of Helen Clark’s blunder when she signs the free-trade agreement with China today because although we don’t know the precise details, it is abundantly clear the agreement will be bad for New Zealand workers, bad for Chinese workers and a slap in the face for Tibetans struggling under China’s yoke.

The Government claims New Zealand will benefit from millions of dollars in extra trade which will grow our economy and make us richer. We are told we should be thrilled to be the first developed country to sign such a deal with China.

However, while trade will increase and, on paper, the economy will grow, it will not improve the standard of living of New Zealanders. In fact, for many of the most vulnerable it will be disastrous.

Back in the late 1980s New Zealand enjoyed a trade surplus with China. We exported more than we imported. This reversed dramatically when import tariffs were removed or phased out.

There was a flood of cheap imports from China which turned the trade surplus into a billion-dollar deficit. When the Government began negotiations for the free-trade agreement in December 2004 the deficit with China was $1.5 billion. A year later it had grown to over $2b. Our exports stagnated while China flooded the country with sweated imports.

Tens of thousands of jobs were lost from our manufacturing sector as New Zealand companies went to the wall. Some survived only by shifting their manufacturing base to China. Others transformed into importing companies and helped fill the shelves of The Warehouse with cheap junk we think we need.

But these bargain goods carry a very high price. The Ministry of Economic Development has estimated 16 jobs are lost for every $1 million of imported products we could make here.

A simple calculation shows about 50,000 jobs lost to Chinese imports alone. As more tariffs are phased out under the free-trade agreement we can expect as many as 20,000 more New Zealand workers to lose their jobs, with many more families driven below the poverty line.

None of this seems to concern the Government. To our politicians this is free trade on one of those fictitious level playing fields. The Chinese economy is built on long hours, child labour, forced labour and poverty wages. Is it free trade when New Zealand workers are expected to compete with workers paid less than $1 an hour for 16-hour days? Is it free trade when China operates prison labour camps where as many as seven million inmates work without pay and nothing in the way of health and safety standards, to produce goods to compete with New Zealand products? China has repeatedly refused to sign up to even the most basic of labour standards under the International Labour Organisation, such as bans on forced labour and the right to organise independent trade unions. Those Chinese who dare to speak out are silenced.

Why would New Zealand give preferential trade status to a regime like this?

Helen Clark had a different view back in November 1998. She decried National leader Jenny Shipley putting trade ahead of human rights and said we have had this pitiful simpering about there being a distinction between business issues and issues of human rights and democracy. If that value had been applied in 19th century England and North America, then we would still have slavery, because the representatives of those who employed slaves would claim that there was no connection between that issue and their business values.

A year later, in the speech from the throne, the newly elected Labour Government told us that legitimate issues of labour standards and environmental concerns need to be integrated better with trade agreements.

But all this has gone out the window. They were just pious platitudes. The Clark Government is dealing with these 21st century slave-owners, buying their products at reduced rates and helping the regime bolster its stranglehold on democracy and human rights.

And what about the Tibetans? The Government said it was very concerned at the reports of repression and violence in Tibet. Helen Clark said she was waiting for more information. It was a way of buying time and praying the Chinese army would crush the Tibetan struggle quickly so the story would drop from the headlines long enough for her to arrive in Beijing with her 150-strong delegation for her performance as the deal-making queen of international trade.

She may as well sign in the blood of Chinese workers and Tibetan freedom fighters.

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