The promise of free trade: we would gain greater access to markets for our products allowing us to grow our economy and create more jobs. The reality of free trade: manufacturing jobs lost to countries with more relaxed labour and environmental laws and the dramatic loss of middle-class earning power at home.
Now that most of the better paying manufacturing jobs have gone offshore we’re starting down a whole new “free trade” path: sell our ore bodies, oil sands, natural gas reserves and forests directly to foreign national governments and allow those same governments to import to Canada their own lower cost workers to extract our resources and ship them home.
This is the slipperiest of slippery slopes; one which desperately begs full disclosure and full public debate before we commit to selling any more of our natural resources to foreign national “corporations” or to the exploitation of temporary foreign workers to extract our natural resources at the lowest possible cost.
For a start, Prime Minister Harper’s secretive proposed free trade agreement with China must be subjected to full public scrutiny and debate, both within and without Parliament.
Free trade, by principal, should only be formalized between liberal democratic nations whose people share the same basic rights and freedoms. How can we support, through a free trade agreement, a national government that does not permit free elections, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and whose track record of exploitation of workers both at home and abroad is clearly not what Canadians would want to support through unfettered access to our natural resources and our markets (by the way, the so-called free trade agreement with China won’t allow Canadian companies the same access to China’s marketplace or natural resources).
Just as importantly, if we are going to continue to allow large-scale importation of temporary foreign, we must provide stronger protections for these workers to ensure they cannot be exploited. Canada’s laws governing the remuneration and working conditions of temporary foreign workers is weak and must be strengthened to ensure that we are not enabling a new form of slave labour within our borders.
The ongoing saga of the Chinese workers who were killed in an Alberta oil sands accident in 2007 is a clear illustration of how weak our laws are. In this case, a Chinese national company was subcontracted to build containers for an oil-sands company that was partially owned by another Chinese-national corporation. When two of the 132 Chinese workers were killed in an accident the subsequent investigation revealed that the work was being undertaken without an engineer’s approval, there were 53 serious violations of the Alberta Occupational Health & Safety regulations, and the 132 workers were being paid a fraction of the wages that were promised to them and that were being reported to the Alberta and Canadian governments. In order to avoid prosecution, the Chinese subcontractor attempted to claim it had no legal standing in Canada.
This must not be our future in BC. While we already rely on more and more temporary foreign workers to exploit our natural resources, the announcement that potentially thousands of temporary Chinese workers will be heading to our northern coal mines begs the question of how well equipped we are to protect those workers from the same abuses the Chinese workers in Alberta were subjected to.
If we’re going to import more workers to export our natural resources, how will we provide those workers with the same rights and protections that British Columbians are supposed to be given and how will we prevent China, and other national governments, from importing their weaker labour and environmental laws here along with their workers?
This public policy debate needs to take place now.
Bob Simpson MLA Cariboo North