Back from the dead: Why the 'zombie' TPP must be stopped

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Even without the US, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a danger to democracy and workers' rights. 

It’s been described as a “zombie” but academic and fair-trade campaigner Dr Pat Ranald doesn’t want you to call it that.

“It’s very much alive,” Dr Ranald, convener of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET), said of the rebadged Trans-Pacific Partnership in the tiny office she workers out in the middle of Sydney.

“They always call them ‘partnerships’ these days,” Dr Ranald said. People had begun to see through the “free” in free trade agreements.

In March the Turnbull Government’s trade minister, Steve Coibo, recommitted Australia to the trade deal that was all but killed when US President Donald Trump came to power.

Australia and Japan resurrected the deal, without America, and the Comprehensive Progressive TPP-11 came to be.

But even without President Trump and America’s imposing presence, the rebadged CPTPP is still bad news for Australia.

Trade deal still secret, but many details the same

It still contains “30 chapters of legally binding rules”, Dr Ranald said, most of which are not about reducing the tariffs and trade barriers but “changing or restricting our domestic laws to suit global corporations and restricting future governments from regulating”.

This would be done through special courts – called the “Investor State Dispute Settlement” – that do not have to rely on previous rulings and there is no right of appeal.

That mean the ISDS courts’ word is entirely arbitrary and final. And they could be stacked with pro-business lawyers.

So if a foreign company wanted to sue the Victorian Government because it decided it would not privatise its public transport system (like Mexican transport group ADO threatened to do to Portugal) it could. Or if Queensland lines workers’ employers wanted to raise wages they could find themselves in court against some foreign company complaining they were missing out on profits (as what happened to Alexandria, Egypt when French company Veolia objected to raising the pay of garbage collectors).

The CPTPP would prevent all future Australian governments from making changes to laws unless they were specifically excluded from all of 30 chapters.

“This is undemocratic,” Dr Ranald said, “because governments need to retain the flexibility to respond to changes like financial crises and climate change, the need to re-regulate if privatisation fails, or the need to fix broken industrial laws”.

Australian Council of Trade Unions Secretary Sally McManus has called out Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for going back on his word after he “promised to put Australians first when it comes to work, but this deal puts us last”.

“The Turnbull Government must stop trading away our jobs, wages and opportunities for corporate profits,” she said.

Profit off cheap labour now, no investment in the future

One danger that could be buried in the bill is the complete watering down of labour market testing that is supposed to protect Australian industry standards such as decent pay, Dr Ranald warned.

“Temporary migrant workers are in a far weaker bargaining position because they are sponsored by a single employer and loss of their employment can lead to deportation,” Dr Ranald said.  

“This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.”

Provisions to allow foreign workers into the local market without proper testing are increasingly being slipped into trade agreements testing “as a means of deregulating labour markets”, the academic said.

There is already evidence of gross exploitation of foreign workers brought to Australia on 457 visas, with 20 percent of those brought in either being underpaid or improperly employed, according to the Fair Work Ombudsman. In 2015 alone, one in 10 complaints to the FWO related to 457 visa workers.

For Australia’s unions there are fears this depletion in labour conditions and wages could seep out and bring down standards in other industries.

Electrical Trades Union National Secretary Allen Hicks warned that without appropriate labour market testing safeguards in place, Australian workers will be “denied the opportunities that should be available to them first before that work is done by overseas labour”.

“Young people in particular will be most at risk of missing opportunities such as apprenticeships,” Mr Hicks warned.

New data released by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research showed a 37 per cent drop in the number of apprenticeships being completed since the Abbott-Turnbull Government came to power.

The argument goes that business could exploit these gaps with a two-fold result: cheaper labour now and even less reason to invest in providing valuable skills to Australia’s future workers.

“If employers or overseas corporations can bring in workers from overseas there will be no incentive for them to train young Australians and equip them with the skills our nation will need into the future,” Mr Hicks said.

“We must ensure that all Australians are provided the first opportunity to apply for jobs and if necessary be provided appropriate training, up skilling etc to meet the job requirements before employers and overseas corporations are allowed to utilise overseas labour.”  

Ms McManus pointed out there “are now 435 occupations on the skilled shortage list”.

“It includes cooks, hairdressers, bakers, barristers, roof tilers, property managers, nurses and carpenters,” the ACTU Secretary added.

“It is very hard to believe that we cannot find anyone in Australia who will do this work.”

The ETU is joining the ACTU and other Australian unions stand with Labor and the Greens in backing the Senate inquiry initiated by NXT Senator Rex Patrick.

“Achieving a Senate inquiry is a victory in our campaign for more transparency and accountability in the trade agreement process,” Dr Ranald said in a statement following the announcement.

Hopefully the inquiry uncovers the truth about the “zombie” TPP – before it brings an economic apocalypse to our shores.

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