The text of a bilateral agreement between Australia and China (ChAFTA) was released in June 2015. Following this, parliamentary inquiries were conducted to which AFTINET made a detailed submission. The legislation was passed in October 2015, and the agreement came into force in December 2015.
This agreement is controversial in Australia because it increases entry of temporary Chinese workers in a large number of occupations, without testing first if local workers are available. There are also provisions for Chinese companies with projects worth over $150 million to negotiate the number of foreign workers they bring in as well as their pay and conditions. This is the first time an arrangement which could allow most of the workforce to be imported has been included in any Australian trade agreement. It is unclear whether recent changes to the regulations of Australia’s Migration Act will be sufficient to ensure that such workers are not exploited.
Temporary migrant workers in Australia are already at a high risk of exploitation. There have been a number of studies showing exploitation of temporary workers, working long hours in dangerous conditions at less than minimum wages. Without greater protections in place there are concerns that increased numbers of temporary workers negotiated through trade agreements could lead to more cases of exploitation.
The ChAFTA is also controversial because it contains Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions, which allow foreign investors to bypass national courts and sue governments for compensation if they can argue that changes to law or policy harm their investment. This gives increased power to corporations at the expense of democracy and the public interest.