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Greens wary of deal on Chinese labour

New Zealand Herald, Auckland

Greens wary of deal on Chinese labour

5 October 2006

The Greens say temporary work visas as part of a free trade deal with China could erode New Zealand working conditions but business welcomes the idea.

China’s Commerce Minister Xilai Bo this week suggested China had labour to fill this country’s shortages.

"I think this question can be discussed between the two sides on the basis of mutual benefit," he told the Herald.

Trade Minister Phil Goff said the issue had not yet been discussed but it had potential.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman had reservations.

"The concern is that you end up developing a dual labour market," Dr Norman said.

In the past, New Zealand workers had to compete with workers in China in manufactured goods. If the Government allowed the proposal, this could happen in New Zealand, he said.

"What we want is a race to the top, not to the bottom.

"No one is saying people shouldn’t come here and fill job shortages, but it is a question of what the wages and conditions are, and whether there are New Zealanders that would be excluded as a result."

Dr Norman said the same conditions and wages would have to be a requirement and to make sure the places could not be filled locally.

The New Zealand fishing industry already had problems with underpayment and overstaying.

In Australia under a similar proposal, visiting workers were employed on construction sites and ports on the same wages and conditions as they would receive in China.

Dr Norman said the Greens had made it clear that free trade deals which did not take the environment or people into account would not be in the best interest of New Zealand.

Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O’Reilly said the idea had merit as long as the Government set reasonable criteria.

Adequate English language levels, targeting areas of labour shortage, relevant qualifications and appropriate time stays needed to be addressed.

Mr O’Reilly believed temporary workers would not affect New Zealanders’ jobs, provided the Government ensured the proposal was in New Zealand’s interests.

It could have other benefits - for instance when workers returned to China they could act as "mini ambassadors" for New Zealand and in time improve the export market.

Workers returning to China with more skills would also benefit New Zealand by improving Chinese economic growth, he said.

"The richer China gets, the better for us, in the sense that it’s much more likely that over time they’ll be able to buy the things we sell."

Skilled labour shortages were common in first world countries and New Zealand was actively competing for workers, so such a deal could be useful.

Mr Goff said the Government would not contemplate anything which would threaten New Zealand workers’ wages and conditions.

"China has expressed an interest in facilitating the temporary entry of its skilled workers to fill gaps in the New Zealand labour market," he said. "It is entitled to make the request but this does not indicate [it] will be met."

Mr Goff said specialist areas such as traditional Chinese medicine, chefs and teachers of Mandarin as well as a working holiday scheme for qualified young Chinese might be considered if China were to provide a high-quality package meeting New Zealand’s interests.

"Requests for temporary skilled worker access over wider categories will be treated with caution," Mr Goff said.