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Wednesday, 8 June 1994
Page: 1491

Senator MARGETTS —My question is addressed to the Minister for Trade. I refer the minister to recent news reports concerning a number of women and children in Thailand who, enticed by the promise of work in the textile and clothing industry, were forced to work for no pay, some for a period of over four years. I also refer to reports from the ILO mission to Thailand, which noted that many children continue to work under conditions of exploitation. I ask: what, if anything, is the government doing to ensure that imports into Australia from Thailand are not the result of virtual slave labour or of exploitative child labour? What, if anything, is the government doing to ensure that international pressure is being brought to bear against child labour and/or coercive labour? How does the new GATT agreement interact with the 1930 forced labour convention, particularly in relation to measures in GATT that consider discrimination between imports based on differences in process, such as the difference between forced labour and free labour, to be a form of trade barrier?

Senator McMULLAN —I have just been made aware of some recent news reports and reports from the ILO mission about forced labour and child labour. I have not had time to check all the details, and I am investigating the background to them. In response to Senator Margetts's question, I can provide at this stage the following information. I think everybody would be aware that the Australian government does not have any specific mechanisms in place to deal with forced labour or child labour as it relates to imports into Australia, whether with particular regard to Thailand or any other country.

  We do, however, have a regular dialogue with Thailand on human rights issues. We are assisting the Thais to address the problem themselves, specifically in their effort to establish a human rights commission which in part would address these issues. The Thai government is currently finalising draft legislation for the establishment of a national human rights commission. Under the draft legislation the commission would have the authority to investigate allegations of human rights abuses, and it would also be responsible for promoting human rights in Thailand and educating people about their rights.

  The federal Human Rights Commissioner, Brian Burdekin, visited Thailand in March at the invitation of the Thais and held discussions with officials from the Thai office of the attorney-general on the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission and the legislative framework within which it operates. The Chuan government recognises the seriousness of the issue and, in September last year, established a new ministry of labour to better address problems of labour conditions and welfare.

  While Thailand is concerned that trade and labour standards will be used as a trade barrier against its exports, it has undertaken to work with other countries to combat the worst excesses of labour exploitation. It sees the ILO and UNICEF as having the main international carriage of these issues. Australian unions are currently involved in a tripartite government-union-business program to enhance Thailand's labour standards. The government has been a strong supporter of the work of the Thai special rapporteur on the sale of children, including the examination of the problem of child labour.

  With regard to the second question, I am advised that the 81st session of the International Labour Conference which is being held in Geneva from 7-24 June 1994 will be considering a report by the ILO committee of experts on the application of conventions and recommendations. That report addresses the issue of child labour in the context of the examination of reports on the application of ILO convention No. 29, forced labour, of 1930. The committee commented on the direct contacts mission which, at the request of the government of Thailand, visited that country in September last year. The Australian government delegate to the conference is expected to make a statement in support of the report of the committee of experts.

  With regard to the third question, the issue of the relationship between trade and labour standards is currently under consideration internationally, including at the International Labour Conference. There is a wide range of views on the extent to which the World Trade Organisation, for example, should be involved in this area. Australia's view is that the ILO has a central role in strengthening labour standards, and the role the WTO might play in any link between trade and labour standards needs careful consideration in the light of developments internationally, and in particular, in the light of attempts to make the ILO more effective in this area.

  The Australian government shares a continuing concern with many other countries about the rights of workers internationally, and we will be vigilant in pursuing what we think is the most effective mechanism to enhance those rights without creating opportunities for people to establish protectionism under the guise of concern for workers' rights.

Senator MARGETTS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. If I read the minister correctly, does this mean that, as with environmental standards, the Australian representative will in fact be opposing any use of work standards or child labour to be integrated into the standards of the World Trade Organisation?

Senator McMULLAN —That issue has not arisen. I was commenting on what we will be doing at the International Labour Conference, which we think is the appropriate vehicle—and I think internationally it is regarded as the most appropriate vehicle—to advance the concerns of workers internationally. It has been the forum on which we have relied and to which we have given support for a very long time. It is the basis of the convention on which Senator Margetts relies for her question and of the delegation which very effectively has put the spotlight on the issue which she has just raised. So we intend to give active support to the International Labour Organisation in its pursuit of better labour standards internationally, and we will be active participants in any debate about what other mechanisms might be pursued to enhance workers' rights.