Millions of poor people could be threatened by Australian free trade deal with China

Campaigns and Advocacy, Media Releases article written on the 20 Mar 2007

The livelihoods of millions of poor sheep herders and cotton farmers could be threatened if a free trade agreement between China and Australia goes ahead, warned Oxfam today (21 March) as it published a new report, ‘Signing Away the Future.’
‘A proposed trade deal between Australia and China may have disastrous consequences for poor people living in rural China,’ said Oxfam Australia’s trade expert, Jeff Atkinson.
According to the report, rich countries are using regional and bilateral trade deals to obtain concessions they cannot get at the World Trade Organisation, with serious implications for the development of poor countries. ‘Trade is important for growth but these agreements are bad for development. They require enormous irreversible concessions from developing countries and almost nothing in return from rich countries,’ said Mr Atkinson.
The potential negative implications of free trade agreements for development are significant as the Australia/China deal currently on the negotiating table shows. China is the biggest purchaser of Australian wool, with exports valued at $1.3 billion. This has had an impact on sheep herders in inland provinces and in China’s sensitive western border provinces. In a visit to Xinjiang in China’s rural north-west, fair-trade advocate Oxfam found herders had experienced a continuous price drop of more than 50% in the last few years. The free trade agreement with China, which seeks to enlarge market access in wheat, wool, beef, sugar and cotton, could also impact the livelihoods of many peasant cotton farmers who are currently experiencing severe price fluctuation and stagnation.
The China agreement is only one of many being negotiated by Australia with developing countries. This will only weaken the multilateral rules-based trading system. And it’s an experience mirrored worldwide as a spate of regional and bilateral trade agreements brokered by rich countries like the US and EU threaten the chances of poor countries to reduce poverty and promote development.
Multilateralism is the key to fairer trade rules and the World Trade Organisation is the key body to achieving this aim, says Oxfam. ‘Australia and other rich countries must use the WTO to negotiate trade deals that improve the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable people as well as help people to trade their way out of poverty,’ Mr Atkinson said.
Oxfam’s report ‘Signing Away the Future,’ calls on the EU and US as well as other developed countries including Australia to stop imposing free trade deals on poor countries. Instead they must concentrate their efforts on reactivating the WTO talks, which are stalling due to the failure of rich countries to deliver promised reforms.
The report recommends that all trade rules, whether multilateral, regional or bilateral:
· recognize that developing countries need special and differential treatment
· allow developing countries to adopt flexible intellectual property legislation
· exclude essential services such as health from liberalization commitments
· recognise the right of governments to regulate foreign investors
· ensure participation of civil society and other actors in the negotiating process
‘Poor countries are being pressured to open their markets dramatically through free trade agreements. It is hugely unjust,’ Mr Atkinson concluded.
For more information or to arrange an interview call Vedran Drakulic on 0409 960 100