While sitting in our outside dunny, I pick up the can of fish food that lives out there, (handy access to my 14 free range gold-fish), and idly examine the label.
“Made in China” it said. I am very surprised.
Spend the rest of the day thinking about the logistics of a can of fish food making its way to my outside dunny all the way from China. I wonder what is going to happen to Australian goldfish when peak oil hits (see previous blog).
I go to the local supermarkets to examine fish food provenance.
- Marine Master Goldfish granules – Made in Taiwan (according to Australia, part of China)
- Woolworths Homebrand Fish Food Granules – Made in China
- Totally Pets Goldfish Food Flakes – Made in China
- Coles Goldfish Granules – Made in China
- Woolworths Fish Food Flakes – Made in China
Thus, my informal survey of fish food manufacture shows that 100% of Australian pet goldfish are fed with Chinese-made fish food.
Now thinking about the millions of cans of goldfish food winging their way here from China (20 million pet fish are sold or imported in Australia per year – http://petsaustralia.org/pet-industries/industry-statistics.) (I love the internet.)
Begin thinking about Australia’s trade with China – of which goldfish food is obviously an integral part.
Look up some figures on a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website: http://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/fs/chin.pdf
Australian merchandise trade with China, 2009:
Exports to China (A$m): 42,353 (Top exports: Iron ore & concentrates, coal, wool and other animal hair, copper ores and concentrates)
Imports from China (A$m): 35,782 (Top imports: Clothing, telecom equipment and parts, computers, prams, toys, games and sporting goods)
Total trade (exports + imports) (A$m): 78,135
So, we sell China lots of our raw, unprocessed, non-renewable resources, (except for the animal hair I suppose), and they sell us back a whole of manufactured products – presumably many of them using some of the raw materials that we sell to them.
To my way of thinking this can only work if:
- we’re selling our resources more cheaply than China can get them elsewhere and/or
- China is selling us manufactured goods more cheaply than we can get them elsewhere – including being made in Australia.
So far, so good – (apart from the peak oil aspects of course. What happens when oil is so expensive that China increases the price of its manufactured goods, and we’ve closed down all our manufacturing industries and built medium density housing where they used to be?)
Apart from that small question, there’s the other question as to why we’re selling off our natural riches to China for bargain basement prices? But maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Wouldn’t someone say if there was?
Sadly, my nagging little conscience now also starts asking about Chinese labour practices? Wasn’t there something about exploitative work practices, child labour or some such?
I am looking for an easy answer. Piers mentions that the current Quarterly Essay (# 39 Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing by Hugh White) has lots in it about Australia’s trade with China. I leap into it.
Although very well written and researched, it takes me all day to read, as I keep dozing off mid paragraph (which I attribute to my very effective back pain medicine, and not to the writing at all).
I now (theoretically) know quite a lot more about Australia’s strategic defence policy than before, which I’m sure will come in handy one day.
When I mention to Piers the lack of information about trade between Australia and China in the Quarterly Essay, he then remembers that he hadn’t actually read the whole article.
I thank him for wasting a day of my life. He doesn’t seem to hear me.
Back to the drawing board. Forced to do my own research I find that it’s quite hard to find unbiased information about China’s employment situation. It was only in 2002 that the Chinese government produced relatively comprehensive data about its manufacturing labour force
In 2004, the United States government commissioned Judith Banister to do some investigation. http://www.bls.gov/fls/chinareport.pdf. Amongst other things, she found that:
“China is indeed an extremely low-wage manufacturing environment” – average wages for the 101 million manufacturing workers is US$ 0.57/hour [57 cents apparently buys as much as nearly $3 in the US],
“factory observations suggest that women do most of the low-paid meticulous hand-assembly of light industrial products, while men dominate the better-paying jobs as machinists and equipment operators
“for the first decades of the 21 century, the Peoples Republic of China has for all practical purposes an unlimited supply of labor, at least of the unskilled and minimally educated variety, and perhaps also of basically literate and numerate hard-working laborers who were born in the countryside.”
The Chinese 2000 census indicated that 58 percent of manufacturing workers had worked 6 or 7 days the previous week
“For China, legal limits on working hours or overtime hours are not likely to yield realistic estimates of actual hours worked. Factories routinely report that they are abiding by the regulations when, in fact, employees are working more hours per day, and many more hours per week or month, than the statutory limits. One purpose of the double bookkeeping in China’s factories is to report compliance with laws on minimum wages and maximum permissible overtime hours when, in reality, the factory routinely violates the laws.”
“Patents and copyright, both domestic and foreign, are ignored with impunity in China’s manufacturing sector.”
There are no real unions in China – there is one State controlled union – the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. Creation of competing unions is forbidden, and the ACFTU does not effectively support its members.
Today I find that we’ve been negotiating an Australia-China Free Trade Agreement since 2005, and that the 15th round of negotiations was held in July 2010.
Not that I’m being critical, but 15 rounds of negotiation does seem rather excessive for something that would appear to be happening quite well already.
But what would I know.
I find an Australian NGO web page that is very critical of these negotiations with lots of information on it – http://aftinet.org.au/cms/china-fta-resources.
And I also find reports from the Alliance for American Manufacturing saying that
China’s production of steel has quadrupled this decade, making it by far the world’s largest source of steel. It now produces more than the United States, Russia and Japan combined. And, while China produces one-third of the world’s steel, it is responsible for half of the world’s carbon dioxide from steelmaking, making it a leading contributor to global warming. http://www.americanmanufacturing.org/press-releases/china-environmental-practices-cast-pall-climate-issue
Of course, for steel making you need iron ore, and it’s Australia that’s sending China loads of iron ore – A$21 billion worth in fact (albeit at bargain basement prices). Kind of us to contribute to China’s greenhouse gas contribution I think.
I didn’t have time to look at China’s record on human rights, but I’m sure that’s all fine.
Because you know what. The Memorandum of Understanding between Australia and China that sets up those negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement doesn’t mention labour practices, the environment or human rights. http://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/china/fta/mou_aust-china_fta.pdf
We’ve apparently decided that none of these is important enough to get clear with China before the negotiations started.
Exhausted from my foray into trade, I decide to look for an Australian made fish food. Found a new brand from Feedwell which can be ordered through ebay. Unfortunately, as a result of my investigations I have now purchased enough Chinese-made fish food to last well beyond the life span of my current gold fish.
This week’s action
- Sacrifice my fish OR
- Take on the promotion of Australian-made fish food as a full time job. OR
- Go back to university, do another degree, become a diplomatic trainee, become a senior diplomat, engage myself in the 25th round of negotiations with the Chinese government over Free Trade, and raise some of the issues above.
I watched this week
My interest in China this week meant that I accompanied the males in my family to Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame – new Chinese language film. Not a lot of plot, but a very impressive Empress.