Our Temporary Labour Mess


Two weeks ago, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and Resources Minister Martin Ferguson found themselves courting a storm of talkback protest. Their sin was to announce that the federal government had approved its first Enterprise Migration Agreement (EMA), granted to a new iron ore project in Western Australia’s Pilbara; proprietor, one G. Rinehart.

EMAs are confidential "deeds of agreement" available to projects worth at least $2 billion and projected to employ at least 1500 workers.

With an anticipated workforce of 8400, Gina Rinehart’s $9.5 billion Roy Hill mine easily meets the requisite criteria. The agreement allows for up to 1715 temporary 457 visa workers during the initial three-year construction phase.

The Roy Hill project is seeking to employ overseas scaffolders and boilermakers, among other workers. As low and semi-skilled occupations they do not fall within the usual range of categories eligible for entry under the normal 457 scheme.

EMAs allow businesses to sidestep the normal requirements of the 457 program at the sole discretion of the minister, without legislative regulations for how that decision is to be made. Moreover, neither the Migration Act, nor the guidelines followed by the minister in approving projects, require any details to be publicly disclosed.

This lack of transparency presents a glaring difficulty: there has been no demonstrated need for temporary overseas labour by the resources sector, and governments haven’t shown any interest in helping Australian workers find jobs in the mining industry.

Furthermore, the introduction of EMAs into Australia’s labour market represents an unspoken acceptance of the failure of our existing 457 program to provide extra skills for the mining boom.

Chris Sutherland, whose Programmed Maintenance Services company acts as an employment agency for resource projects recently told the ABC’s 7:30:

"We had to recruit about 80 workers for a mining site in the north-west. We were able to get over 3600 applicants, and from those applicants screen to 80. So, we certainly think there are more than enough workers available right now to fill most of the requirements, if we can do a little bit of job-specific training to suit any particular requirements of the operation."

The CFMEU’s Dave Noonan also argued that the resources industry and governments should be targeting the unemployed for work at Australian mines:

"Talkback radio has been running hot on the topic. Many callers report that they or their family members have not been able to get a job or even an interview for the resources projects, even though they are qualified… And every time an apprenticeship is offered in construction resources or engineering trades, there are many more applicants than places. But even in blue-collar Perth suburbs, youth unemployment runs north of 25 per cent," he said.

Kelvin Thomson, the federal Labor MP for Wills, argues that EMAs "come at the expense of Aboriginal workers" in Western Australia. Thomson also points to the unemployed as a source for labour: "We have 600,000 Australians on Newstart Allowance and 800,000 on Disability Support Pension. These people should be our first priority."

The anecdotal evidence clearly indicates more could be done to attract local workers to mining projects. Alleviating some of the psychological and personal hardships inherent to the fly-in, fly-out work associated with many mining jobs would be one step towards creating more appealing conditions for Australians seeking employment.

There are also currently no policies or programs which specifically target states or industries as options for the currently unemployed — rectifying this situation may help address the imbalance somewhat.

Around the time of the Budget, Bowen announced an increase to Australia’s already booming migration program, with the express intent of addressing skills shortages

But as recent research from Bob Birrell and Genevieve Heard indicates, none of the skilled permanent entry or temporary visa categories targets migrants for the resources industry.

Birrell and Heard’s report notes that employers can sponsor migrants regardless of industry, occupation or location of work — with the result that just over half of the current migrant intake heads to Sydney and Melbourne, rather than the resource industry states.

Indeed, oversight of 457s was initially so lax that businesses did not originally need to demonstrate the existence of conditions requiring the employment of temporary overseas workers.

To quell public fear over the future of Australian jobs, it has now announced the establishment of a "jobs board", to ensure Australian workers are prioritised over those from overseas. Whether this will actually address the problem remains to be seen.

Birrell recently told the ABC:

"Over the past few years, the Government has systemically rejected any proposals that there should be labour market testing for 457 visas sponsored by Australian employers, and suddenly on Friday, the Prime Minister says that she now feels that Australian workers should be given an opportunity to apply for work that 457 visa holders intended to do. So if this was the case, it would be a massive change and administrative revolution in the 457 visa regime."

In any case, the EMA program also contains basic structural defects. Under EMAs, 457 visas entitle temporary workers to "receive the same wages and workplace conditions as their Australian counterparts" — Australian workers employed by the same company in the same job.

But what if there are no "Australian counterparts" to provide such a benchmark? If a company employs mostly or entirely temporary workers for a particular project or job, there is no guarantee that their wages will be pegged to industry and occupation award rates.

In a number of ways, then, EMAs are fundamentally flawed. They undermine the rights of overseas workers and offer no transparency or accountability to the Australian public. But is there an alternative answer to sating the labour demands of our mining companies?

What is needed is a carefully targeted campaign, directed towards ensuring willing Australians can take on work in the resources industry. This will require policies that both encourage interstate economic migration, and ease the hardship associated with work on remote projects.

But on its own, these measures are insufficient. Our temporary migration program must also prioritise taking in workers for industries with demonstrated or forecast labour shortages.

In the 457 visa scheme, we already have the basic, albeit flawed, framework for better targeted migration intakes. EMAs are an unnecessary and unwieldy solution to problems the government is itself helping create, by not limiting its existing temporary migration intake to industries that genuinely need temporary overseas labour.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.