The ACTU welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties ‘Digital Economy – Singapore inquiry’.  The Australia-Singapore Digital Economy Agreement (DEA) was signed on 6 August 2020; once in force, it will amend the Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), signed on 17 February, 2003.

The ACTU is the peak body for Australian unions.  The ACTU and affiliated unions have had a long and significant interest in the trade agenda on behalf of workers and their communities.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the DEA “will establish cutting-edge global benchmarks for trade rules”.  Australian Unions are concerned that the DEA sets a new standard for the deregulation of the digital economy that will have far-reaching impacts, including undermining workers’ rights.

In particular, Australian Unions oppose restrictions on the regulation of cross-border data flows, restricting requirements on local presence and storage of data, and restricting access to source code.  These rules will lock in deregulation of the digital economy and cement the power of big tech companies over workers.  Although tech companies did not invent insecure work, many have developed digital platform business models built of precarity and exploitative labour practices.  The DEA will be enforceable through the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism in the SAFTA, giving further power to tech companies.

Furthermore, this new standard on the digital economy will be adopted with even less public scrutiny than Australia’s usual treaty-making process; it does not require any legislative change and therefore will not be subject to a debate and vote in Parliament.

At a time when governments should be focusing on how to recover and rebuild from the COVID-19 crisis, which will require the regulatory space to respond, the Australian Government should not be making agreements which will restrict its ability to regulate in the public interest.

Workers need governments to implement strong regulations in the rapidly evolving digital economy to protect human rights and ensure new technology benefits us all.  Australia’s employment laws, human rights laws, privacy laws, and competition laws all need to be strengthened to respond to the development of the digital economy.