A secret trade agreement in which Australia is participating would allow banks and other financial services providers to freely utilise "temporary" IT workers, potentially making life more difficult for contractors and those seeking full-time employment. It could also dramatically change rules relating to data sovereignty and the need to store data onshore. Here's what you need to know.
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Wikileaks yesterday leaked the text of the Financial Services Annex of Secret Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), a wide-ranging trade agreement which would cover 50 countries around the world, including the US, Australia and members of the European Union. The TISA proposals, which have been negotiated in secret, would significantly restrict the ability of governments to control the behaviour of financial institutions, a proposal which seems quite ridiculously short-sighted given the role those institutions played in the global financial crisis.
What's of particular interest to Lifehacker IT Pro is a proposal that would allow financial firms to bring in tech workers rather than having to seek (and potentially train) them locally. Here's the relevant clause:
Each Party shall permit, subject to the availability of qualified personnel in its territory, temporary entry into its territory of the following personnel associated with a commercial presence of a financial service supplier of any other Party: (i) specialists in computer services, telecommunication services and accounts of the financial service supplier
The term "temporary" isn't defined in the leaked document, and since TISA includes numerous other documents that haven't yet leaked, we can only speculate as to what it means. However, even if the intention was only to allow very short-term engagements, that would be a challenge for local IT contractors. And while it might theoretically mean that banks could send Australian workers overseas, that seems less likely. Given the choice, workers from cheaper locations are always going to be the first choice.
The question of dealing with IT skills shortages through immigrant workers has long been controversial in Australia. The 457 visa scheme, which allows for skilled workers to relocate to Australia if those roles can't be filled locally, is already widely relied upon to find specialists in some areas.
While the TISA document does include a clause that says bringing in those workers would be "subject to the availability of qualified personnel in its territory", that clause would be meaningless if there was no formal system in place to check whether workers could be sourced locally before overseas institutions brought in their own workers. Given the current Federal government's commitment to reducing regulation and slashing spending, it seems unlikely that such an approach would be funded.
TISA would also potentially seek to eliminate the issue of "data sovereignty" by not allowing countries to require that financial data be stored locally, or that the location of its storage be known. In an analysis of the leaked document for Wikileaks, Professor Jane Kelsey from the University of Auckland notes:
The entire services lobby wants to stop governments from requiring data to be processed and stored locally. The firms that dominate cloud-based technology are mostly US-based. US firms also dominate the information and communications technology sector in general. The right to hold data offshore is especially important for the finance industry because finance is data . . . When data is held offshore it becomes almost impossible for states to control data usage and impose legal liability. Protecting data from abuse by states has become especially sensitive since the Snowden revelations about US use of domestic laws or practices to access personal data across the world.
There isn't universal agreement on this approach, with the European Union firmly in favour of retaining the potential to impose laws around data locations if it sees fit. The US, unsurprisingly, is lobbying for no restrictions whatsoever, as Kelsey notes:
The US proposal is much more direct. It wants a blanket right for a financial services supplier from a TISA party to transfer information in electronic or other form in and out of the territory of another TISA party for data processing where that is an ordinary part of their business. It is hard to think of a form of financial service where data processing is not part of the business. This obligation is stated in a positive, unfettered form. There is no pretence of any right for the state to protect personal privacy and data.
All in all, it seems these proposals would be good for big global businesses (such as banks) but potentially bad for individual countries and workers. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean they won't be pursued -- the Australian government is firmly in favour of signing up for the deal, arguing it would make it easier for local banks to compete internationally. Putting the profitability of banks above the national interest seems a very questionable goal.