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Federal Politics
Labour + Industry

Ottawa Denies Access for Chinese Workers on Table in Early Trade Talks

As government explores deal with Beijing, critics press for more information.

Jeremy Nuttall 17 Oct

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

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NDP trade critic Tracey Ramsey says until official trade negotiations between Canada and China begin, it’s hard to know what’s on the table.

Exploratory talks on a trade deal with Beijing have not included provisions to let Chinese companies import their own workers in Canada, says a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, which oversees international trade.

But a China expert warned that the Chinese government would press for the right to bring in workers for infrastructure, mines and other resource projects.

And the New Democrats say the government needs to be clear with Canadians about the specifics of its objectives in negotiating a trade deal with China.

In August, The Tyee detailed labour groups’ concerns that Ottawa would let Chinese companies import their own workers for projects in Canada.

Similar provisions have been included in other free trade agreements signed by Beijing, including with Australia.

Labour groups fear that Chinese firms bringing in their own workers for projects in Canada would undercut wages and labour standards.

The government said then that Canada had not even begun exploratory talks with China, the stage prior to formal negotiations.

“The Government of Canada is committed to reforming its work permit programs to encourage the hiring and training of Canadians, and to limit the use of foreign workers,” said Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Diana Khaddaj in an email in August.

The Prime Minister’s Office announced on Sept. 24 “exploratory discussions” for a free trade deal with China would begin. The announcement came during a visit from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

The Tyee again asked Global Affairs Canada whether Chinese companies being able to bypass Canada’s labour force was on the table, and received the same generic statement from the department.

It noted that exploratory talks are not negotiations and are meant to “inform Canada what issues or areas could be included in any potential negotiations.”

The Tyee asked if any concessions on foreign workers were being discussed in the exploratory talks. “No, absolutely not,” said Khaddaj. “And Canada is not in negotiations at this time.”

Feds should be clear on trade ambitions: critic

NDP trade critic Tracey Ramsey said without official negotiations it’s hard to know what is on the table.

But she said International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland should be clear with Canadians on the agenda around Canada’s trade ambitions with China.

“Minister Freeland has been quoted numerous times as saying she wants to look at progressive trade,” Ramsey said. “What does she mean by that? Does that mean that labour will be protected here in Canada and we won’t see the provisions the Chinese have sought with others?”

Ramsey said she wants to see the positions Ottawa is bringing to exploratory discussions.

Charles Burton, a Brock University professor and expert on China, said that Beijing will push for the ability to use Chinese labour on major projects in Canada.

“What the Chinese hope to gain is the ability to engage in infrastructure projects using their own workers in accordance with Chinese labour stands,” Burton said. “That is a significant advantage for them.”

The government is sure to be pressured by Beijing, with promises of economic prosperity if Canada allows such a provision.

Burton said the government’s commitment to preventing Chinese companies from importing workers and protecting Canadian jobs remains to be seen.

“I do wonder to what extent that will be pledged and held to a few years down the road.”  [Tyee]

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