Union Takes On Labor Over ‘Cheap’ Foreign Workers

Union takes on Labor over 'cheap' foreign workers

The Sydney Morning Herald
February 12, 2010

ONE of Australia's most powerful trade unions has set itself on a collision course with the Rudd government, backing a campaign against it over the controversial 457 visa scheme for temporary foreign workers.

A report commissioned by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, to be released next week, will reveal the government has dropped the fundamental premise of the scheme, which is that employers must test the labour market before offering jobs to foreign workers. The author of the report, labour market and migration specialist Bob Kinnaird, writes that the Rudd government is no longer requiring employers to give preference to Australian workers, which he says ''goes further than even the Howard government's position'', which Labor had criticised when in opposition before 2007.

The report, analysing recent government statements on the visa scheme, finds that Australia is not requiring employers to prefer Australian over foreign workers in hiring or in retention in case of redundancies. Nor can Australia freely change the list of occupations for which the visas can be granted, nor cap the numbers of visa holders in a particular year.

There are estimated to be more than 70,000 of the visa holders working in Australia.

The general secretary of the CFMEU, John Sutton, told the Herald that ''employers seeking cheap, contingent labour from overseas will jump all over the changes. It's always been required that employers can only apply for the visas where there is a genuine shortage of local workers and where they have attempted to source them locally and failed.

''Without that genuine labour market testing, they can just assert that they want foreign workers without having to prove the need.''

Mr Sutton said the union had expressed its concerns to the Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, in letters and in meetings.

''What they are saying is that their hands are tied by international obligations under the World Trade Organisation and the Doha round of trade talks. This report has found that that is not the case. We are not bound, but the Rudd government is totally mesmerised by being seen to support a free-trade agenda internationally.''

Senator Evans responded to the union late last year, saying: ''We cannot create legal obstacles for overseas workers or introduce preferential treatment for Australian workers without compromising our international trading position and legal obligations.''

He was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Mr Sutton said the situation for Australian workers was becoming ''perilous''. A survey of 50 companies by KPMG last August found that more than three-quarters would not choose to retrench 457 visa holders instead of Australians. Two-thirds said they were continuing to recruit 457 visa holders while they were reducing staff numbers overall.

Mr Sutton said a key reason was that ''the minimum salary level in the 457 visa scheme is as low as $45,000 in jobs where a local worker could expect to earn more like $100,000''.

The CFMEU, Mr Sutton said, was preparing for a national campaign against the government's position.

''This government has been better than the Howard government in reining in the more manifest abuses of the 457 scheme,'' said Mr Sutton, ''but those issues are insignificant compared with this very fundamental conceptual change to the scheme.

''When our government sits down with governments from the big developing economies of our region, such as China and India, to negotiate bilateral trade agreements, we don't have a hell of a lot to put on the table. Making our labour market freer to countries with large pools of cheap labour is one of the few enticements we have to put before them in these negotiations.

''But when you think of the potential impact on local workers, I think most of the Australian public would part company with the government on this issue.''