China asks NZ to let workers in as part of free trade agreement

New Zealand Herald, Auckland

China asks NZ to let workers in as part of free trade agreement

By Fran O’Sullivan

4 October 2006

China wants New Zealand to admit skilled workers on temporary permits as part of a planned free trade deal.

Trade Minister Phil Goff said the request, made during talks in Auckland this week, was "sensitive".

Mr Goff said New Zealand would want major concessions on the trade deal with Beijing if it agreed to more access for Chinese workers.

New Zealand negotiators would also want to protect the country’s labour force and working conditions in any agreement.

In an exclusive interview with the Herald, Chinese Commerce Minister Bo Xilai said China had raised the issue as his country had an abundant labour resource.

"Over the past few years the skills of our labour force have been considerably improved. That is testified by our ever-sharpened export capability for manufactured goods.

"Moreover, during the course of your economic development process, your country does need some more labour. I think this question can be discussed between the two sides on the basis of mutual benefit."

Mr Goff said Mr Bo’s bid had not yet been discussed in technical talks on the proposed free trade agreement.

New Zealand was constrained over the extent to which it could meet China’s offer to export temporary skilled workers, but could possibly grant concessions for Chinese chefs, traditional medicine specialists, Mandarin teachers and working holiday programmes for young Chinese.

At issue for China is the extent to which its businesspeople will benefit from the proposed trade agreement. Mr Bo believes most Chinese businesspeople will want to expand domestically, rather than overseas. Hence the upside for China may come from the movement of skilled people rather than business expansion.

Mr Goff sees a bigger picture. He believes if China could persuade New Zealand to agree to a small percentage movement in the number of Chinese skilled labourers allowed here, it could be used as a precedent in its dealings with larger OECD countries.

Unions were guarded about the development last night but felt that Government negotiators would give priority to protecting jobs and conditions of New Zealand workers.

Council of Trade Unions president Ross Wilson said the CTU would be concerned if the availability of migrant labour reduced incentives to improve the skills and conditions of New Zealand workers.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials had given his organisation regular briefings on the talks with China and it expected to be consulted closely before any concessions were made on migrant labour.

Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union secretary Andrew Little said employers in short-handed industries such as manufacturing and boat-building were already combing the world for skills, and "if it fills a gap we can’t complain".

Construction Industry Council chairman Richard Michael said his members would prefer to fill jobs with New Zealanders, for the best long-term payoff in retaining their skills in this country. Any labour deal with China would have to address cultural and language issues and he supported unions in urging protection of local employment conditions.

- Additional reporting by Mathew Dearnaley

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