Meat exporters are shaking their heads in disbelief after the government refused to push for the removal of costly non-tariff barriers in Middle Eastern trade talks and targeted what they say are unrealistic environmental and social goals instead.
Trade Minister Damien O’Connor last year attempted to revive New Zealand’s agreement with the six oil-rich members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to scrap tariffs costing exporters $60 million annually.
The deal had been largely finished under the last National-led government but never formally signed off.
O’Connor told the GCC he would only sign the deal if its members agreed to new environmental and labour standards demands.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s website, NZ negotiators are now pushing the GCC for commitments on climate change and workers’ rights, including “to adopt and maintain laws which govern acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work and health and safety”.
The GCC includes Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, and Qatar, the world’s largest LNG exporter – a country that was the scene of hundreds of deaths of immigrant labourers working on new stadiums for last year’s football World Cup.
Since O’Connor’s ultimatum the GCC has pulled its previous offer to slash agricultural tariffs, and negotiations have stalled.
Now Farmers Weekly can reveal that the government also turned its back on the meat industry’s pleas to tackle a range of non-tariff barriers to trade with the GCC when it re-opened the negotiations.
“We said if we are having the conversation and re-opening things, could we re-open those?” one meat industry source said.
“That was a pretty quick no from officials.
“When we found that out, our interest [in the negotiations] dropped dramatically.”
The industry’s pleas included aligning Halal protocols for slaughtering livestock in NZ processing plants with GCC standards, discarding time-consuming consular approval of export certificates and extending shelf-life limits for chilled meat shipments to the region.
Meat Industry Association chief executive Sirma Karapeeva said prioritising other objectives was unfair on the industry and likely to be unproductive from a negotiating point of view in any case.
“I do not think it is an issue that the government is willing to put on the front foot, given that they are also trying to negotiate environmental and sustainability provisions which are frankly quite a big ask for the GCC.”
Silver Fern Farms general manager of sales Peter Robinson said non-tariff measures are hurting exports to the Middle East.
Shelf-life limits are particularly a problem in the wake of shipping delays caused by the pandemic, and remain so.
“There are some markets where we have withdrawn our chilled products because the transit times are such that we cannot get it there with enough shelf life to take the risk.
“As a result you will see markets such as Jordan where NZ does not send chilled products anymore.
“We are selling that product as frozen at a loss of premium.
“In some cases it is not a significant amount but we are losing our position on shelves, which is disappointing,” Robinson said.
Karapeeva said the government is in danger of losing sight of the real purpose of trade agreements, which is to free up trade.
“I do not think consularisation of documents is as sexy as saying we have a got a sustainability commitment with the GCC.
“But those are the things that are really hurting our exporters.”
O’Connor was approached for a comment but was unavailable.
The government’s Trade for All agenda lists climate change, labour standards, gender equality, and the rights of indigenous people, among other issues, as priorities for NZ trade negotiators.
It has previously claimed past National-led governments undermined public support for free trade agreements by keeping such issues out of negotiations. By including them the government would ensure the public continued to support trade deals, it held.