Visa Review Welcomed, But Warning On Free Trade

Visa review welcomed, but warning on free trade

Kate Hannon
The Canberra Times
April 15, 2008

The main building and construction union has welcomed the review of the temporary skilled worker 457 visa scheme but has warned the Rudd Government against following New Zealand and allowing Chinese labour under a free trade agreement.

Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans has appointed Industrial Relations Commissioner Barbara Deegan to review the integrity of 457 visas after revelations of abuse and neglect of foreign workers.

The move follows a long campaign by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union which highlighted underpayment and exploitation of workers from China, India and the Philippines, particularly in the construction and forestry industries.

But CFMEU national secretary John Sutton said the landmark free trade agreement announced last week between New Zealand and China included a labour component which rang “very loud alarm bells” for unions in Australia.

Under the NZ-China agreement, 1000 Chinese skilled workers would be allowed into NZ on temporary work visas and an additional 1000 holiday work visas would be made available for unskilled labour.

Mr Sutton said, “The numbers aren't big but I think the Chinese are very happy that they've broken through on the principle that they should be able to supply labour into the so-called western countries.

“That is an issue that rings very loud alarm bells for those of us in Australia who are concerned with and interested in a regulated labour market.”

During his visit to China last week, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said China had agreed to resume free trade agreement talks after they had stalled under the Howard government.

He said Trade Minister Simon Crean would visit China soon to establish the groundwork for talks to proceed.

Mr Sutton said he had no doubt Australian employers would argue forcefully for a labour component in any free trade agreement now that NZ had set the precedent.

As part of her review of the 457 temporary business long-stay visa scheme, Ms Deegan will take six months' leave from the commission.

With the help of a working party of industry and trade union leaders, Ms Deegan's brief will be how to strengthen the integrity of the visas, type of employment conditions, protection against exploitation, health and safety protection and English language requirements for workers.

Australian Industry Group chief executive Heather Ridout urged against a tightening of 457 visa rules and said visa applications should be fast-tracked in order to meet the shortage of skilled workers.

Ms Ridout said, “At the moment the vast bulk of the increase in labour supply into the economy … is coming from immigration.”

Labor senator for the ACT Kate Lundy said Canberra had witnessed several incidents where former migrant workers, particular Filipino chefs and cooks, had been poorly treated.