Fair Trade

Unions support international trade based on the principles of fair trade. That is, trade which is understood first and foremost as a tool for raising living standards and creating decent job opportunities.

The primary objective of all trade negotiations should be to raise living standards and make a positive difference in the lives of working people. Reducing barriers to trade and investment, and increasing economic co-operation and integration, are possible means of achieving this.

History has demonstrated, however, that the benefits of international trade and investment are not evenly distributed. Therefore, trade negotiations need to be underpinned by a commitment to human rights and decent work. They should be approached by asking how decisions at the negotiating table contribute to a coordinated strategy for the promotion of high-quality jobs and sustainable economic development that benefits all workers.

Labour rights in trade agreements
International labour rights are recognised in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and the Conventions of the International Labour Organisation. International trade and investment should not undermine these rights.

This requires trading partners to uphold the fundamental rights of workers including freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, the right to be free from discrimination, and the elimination of forced and child labour. Commitment to these rights is also consistent with a commitment to ensuring the benefits of trade are fairly shared with workers.

Multilateral trade negotiations – the World Trade Organisation
Unions believe trade liberalisation is best pursued through multilateral rather than bilateral agreements. Multilateral arrangements increase the benefits of liberalisation, provide economic benefits to both developing and developed countries, and ensure greater transparency of global trade rules.

However, the impasse in multilateral trade negotiations has seen countries – including Australia – increasingly focus on negotiating bilateral and regional trade agreements. Australia has negotiated bilateral and/or regional agreements with ASEAN, Chile, New Zealand, the United States, Singapore and Thailand. A trade agreement with Malaysia is currently undergoing domestic approval processes and negotiations continue with China, the Gulf Cooperation Council, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, Indonesia, the Pacific Islands, and the countries of the Trans Pacific (see below).

Over 250 bilateral and regional agreements have been notified to the World Trade Organisation. Some critics caution against the spaghetti bowl effect that this is having on trade relations.  Of key concern to trade unions is whether there are benefits to negotiating these agreements, and where there are benefits, these are shared equitably with workers.

Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement

Negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) began in March 2010. There are now 12 negotiating countries: the US, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Australia and New Zealand.

The negotiations are secret, but leaked documents reveal that the US as the largest economy is driving the agenda on behalf of its most powerful export industries.

Pharmaceutical companies want stronger patents on medicines which would delay the availability of cheaper generic medicines. Media companies want longer copyright payments, restrictions on Internet use and less data privacy. Food, alcohol and tobacco companies want to limit government regulation of food, tobacco and alcohol labelling.

And all of these corporations want special rights for foreign investors to sue governments for damages in an international tribunal if they can argue that a change in law or policy harms their investment, known as Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS).

The Philip Morris tobacco company is currently using ISDS in an obscure Hong Kong-Australia investment agreement to sue our government for billions of dollars in compensation for plain packaging legislation, despite the fact that it was passed with bipartisan support through Parliament and the Australian High Court found they were not entitled to compensation under Australian law.

There are increasing numbers of ISDS cases against health, environmental and even minimum wage regulation.

WATCH: Workers speak out about the TPP

Despite promises, there is still no agreement about the inclusion of enforceable labour rights and environmental standards in the TPP. Unions support comprehensive commitments to core labour standards based on ILO conventions and acceptable conditions of work with monitoring and enforcement of labour rights commitments.

Unions from Australia and other TPP countries have campaigned with community organisations for strong and enforceable labour rights and environmental standards, the rejection of special rights for foreign investors to sue governments, and rejection of stronger monopoly rights on medicines that would undermine access to affordable medicines.

We oppose any provisions that would negatively affect Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and similar schemes in other countries. These campaigns, including a strong US campaign, have delayed the negotiations, with many TPP deadlines being missed since 2012.

Australian parliamentarians have responded to the community and union campaign by forming a cross-party working group critical of the TPP.

The 2015 ACTU Congress called for the release of the text of the TPP for public and parliamentary scrutiny before the decision to sign it is made by Cabinet, and failing this, for Australia to withdraw from the negotiations.

Key facts 

In 2010, the value of world trade merchandise exports reached US$14.9 trillion, almost a tripling of exports over a 40-year period:

  • Australia’s total trade (imports and exports) was A$608.2 billion in 2011.
  • Australia’s top five two-way trading partners are China, Japan, the United State, the Republic of Korea and Singapore. Australia has negotiated bilateral trade agreements with Singapore and the United States, and is currently negotiating agreements with China, Japan and the Republic of Korea.
  • To date, Australia has signed two trade agreements that contain provisions on labour rights. However, there is significant potential for improvement in the labour rights provisions the Australia negotiates to ensure trading countries are held accountable to commitments on fundamental rights at work.

What’s next
While Australia continues to negotiate trade agreements, trade unions will continue to take an active interest in international trade negotiations. In particular, unions will advocate for:

  • The inclusion of enforceable labour rights in all trade agreements negotiated by the government, including in the current Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement negotiations;
  • Trade negotiations that uphold the role of government in domestic decision making and the provision of essential goods and services;
  • The exclusion of provisions that enable foreign corporations to sue governments when changes are made to domestic policy and regulations;
  • Trade negotiations that do not undermine the role of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in providing affordable prescription medicines and hence the maintenance of public health in Australia;
  • The development of impact assessments on existing trade agreements, so that we can better understand the positive and negative impacts of trade on workers and societies and comprehensive analysis of the impact of proposed trade agreements prior to the conclusion of negotiations;
  • Improved transparency and civil society participation in trade negotiations;
  • Reform of the World Trade Organisation, to facilitate a pathway that overcomes the current impasse in the Doha Round of negotiations and the benefit to workers, society and the environment is at the centre of negotiated outcomes; and
  • The establishment of a Labour Forum at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, to bring a worker’s perspective to the regional agenda.