The Australia-UK FTA could become a blueprint for socially conscious trade

What should the Australia-UK FTA include?

1)   A Freedom of Movement Agreement (FOMA) for British and Australian citizens which could be modelled after the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement (TTTA) between Australia and New Zealand

2) Prior to the signing of the FTA, Australia should insist that the UK adopt the following amendments to its Modern Slavery Act 2015 to bring it in line with Australia’s Modern Slavery Act 2018:

2.1) to establish a publicly accessible register of all modern slavery statements submitted by businesses to promote greater accountability for non-compliance;

2.2) to mandate reporting requirements for the British public sector to ensure that supply chains utilised for tendered government activities do not facilitate modern slavery;

3) Australia should propose that existing visas granted by the Australian and UK governments with tied conditions be stripped of employer reporting obligations to strengthen the protection of migrant workers against labour exploitation;

Australia and the UK have began the initial stages of negotiating an FTA. This agreement presents an opportunity to remove unnecessary barriers that have restricted trade and travel between our countries. Sharing a rich historical and cultural affinity with one another, the FTA provides the UK and Australia with the chance to deliver an ambitious FTA that not only boosts economic growth and prosperity but also seeks to address the risks of modern slavery that arise through global trade.

In 2011, The Cameron government introduced immigration reforms aimed at reducing non-EU migration which significantly restricted Australians’ ability to work in the UK. These measures have led to a 49% decline in the number of working visas granted to Australians annually: down from 37,375 in 2005 to 19,134 in 2017.

A freedom of movement agreement (FOMA) between our countries would ease current visa barriers and grant Australians and Britons reciprocal rights to live and work abroad. The economic benefits of immigration are clear—free trade leads to a more efficient labour market and allocation of resources. This results in higher average incomes and lower prices for consumer goods. People are also freer to choose between lifestyles, jobs, political jurisdictions and environments.

This arrangement could be modelled after the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement (TTTA) between Australia and New Zealand which forms part of our Closer Economic Relations (CER) partnership. The TTTA allows citizens of both countries who meet minimum health and character requirements to travel between, live and work in both countries.

Any reluctance to accept a FOMA based on migration issues arising from the UK’s experience in the EU can be easily addressed as the proposed relationship is not analogous to EU membership. Australia and the UK are sovereign states, committed to the rule of law and able to apply strict border controls. Similarly to the TTTA, the UK and Australia would retain sovereign control over immigration and could exercise the power to reject entrants based on public safety, national security or public health considerations. 

Australia and the UK also have similar GDP per capita, meaning that pull factors that motivated citizens of poorer EU member countries such as Bulgaria (where GDP per capita is 9,272.63 USD)  to migrate to the UK in search of higher paying employment will not be a concern in an Australia-UK FOMA. Australia and New Zealand’s TTTA provides a proven framework for promoting sustainable migration between comparable developed countries that share a head of state, the rule of law and equivalent standards of living.

Despite the economic and social advantages of an Australia-UK FOMA, such an ambitious proposal is unlikely to be adopted in the short-term. A preferential visa system akin to the American E-3 visa could be established in the interim. This system would grant Britons and Australians reciprocal working rights upon receiving relevant job offers. The E-3 visa, an integral part of the Australia-US FTA, permits an annual quota of Australians to enter the US, requires minimal paperwork, and is one tenth of the cost of a comparable visa.

Alternatively, were the UK and Australian visa systems to remain unchanged under the proposed FTA, at the very least, the vulnerability of migrant workers could be addressed by abolishing tied visas such as the 417 Working Holiday Visa in Australia and the Domestic Overseas Worker Visa in the UK. Many Australians and Britons travel between our countries on working holidays, often utilising tied visas. These visas require employers to sign off on the visa conditions of migrant workers, exposing our citizens to risks of exploitation and modern slavery. For these reasons, at minimum this FTA should address the vulnerabilities of migrant workers under the tied visa system.   

Increases in the movement of goods, services and people due to the Australia-UK FTA will heighten modern slavery risks. As our countries have both enacted Modern Slavery Acts and share a commitment to combatting human trafficking, the FTA presents a natural opportunity to encourage a ‘race to the top’ on modern slavery social policy.

Under the Australian act, the Australian Public Service is required to report modern slavery statements and a central repository containing modern slavery statements is publically available. Unlike Australia, the UK public sector is not required to report modern slavery statements and modern slavery statements from the private sector are not publically accessible. Given these inconsistent standards, Australia could request that prior to signing the FTA, the UK align its laws with Australian legislation to increase accountability and awareness of links to modern slavery in British supply chains.

If the Australia-UK FTA manages to liberalise unnecessary visa barriers while improving migrant-worker protections and supply chain oversight, it will become a blueprint for socially conscious trade. 

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