Interview: Head On
Unions: Do You Have a Moment?
Industrial: Vital Signs
Economics: Taxing Times
Environment: It Ain’t Necessarily So
History: Melbourne’s Hours
Immigration: Opening the Floodgates
Review: Pollie Fiction
Poetry: The Cabal
The Locker Room
The Cowra Clause
Belly Spreads The Word
Lying Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them
Opening the Floodgates
The story of labour market deregulation in Australia has centred on the Howard Government's new Workchoices industrial laws. But another factor has been at play for nearly ten years now and it represents every bit as detrimental an effect on our labour market standards - the deregulation of temporary work visa requirements.
In 1995, the Keating Labor Government appointed the CEO of Fujitsu Australia, Neville Roach, to conduct an enquiry into the rules surrounding the issuing of temporary work visas for foreign workers to access our labour market.
It was no surprise that Roach, an advocate of the key tenets of globalisation - the free movement of capital and labour across borders - came back with recommendations that 100 years of regulations should be swept away.
Before the ALP could determine an attitude to Roach's fast ball, the Liberals were elected and, within months, the new Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, adopted the Roach recommendations in full. In the decade that followed, Australian workplaces moved from utilising less than 100,000 temporary work visas issued each year to nearly 700,000 in the financial year 2004 - 2005.
Has the economy or the workforce grown by 600%? Of course not - but guest labour on a major scale is finally with us in our cities, towns and regions, as Australian employers are thirsty for the cheap labour that temporary work visa workers very often represent.
Where are the 700,000 visas recently issued going? Nearly 400,000 are workers on business short stay and long stay visas who possess skills ranging from the semi-skilled (meatworkers, cooks etc) through to the highly skilled (scientists, doctors etc).
But it's not simply workers with skills - it's also the unskilled. More than 120,000 Working Holiday Maker visas were issued in 2004/2005, together with around 200,000 student visas (students can work up to 20 hours per week, more during vacations).
The day-to-day reality of this labour market surge is cafés, restaurants, hotels, major events etc employing youngsters from overseas on casualised rates. Fruit is being picked and labour performed from similar sources in rural and regional areas. And mostly it's non-union workers who have little understanding or care for the impact they are having on local working conditions.
In the case of back packers: 10 years ago about 25,000 came to Australia - today it's 120,000 and the impact on our labour market is more pronounced. But it's in the area of the temporary skilled visas where the impact on our labour market has been the greatest. And the reasons why need to be understood.
The Howard Government has abandoned labour market testing, i.e. the principle that local employers must seek to source labour locally before seeking to sponsor overseas workers. While Employers in regional areas are still nominally required to show that the position cannot be filled locally, local chambers of commerce oversee this process and it is a requirement on paper only. To add to the problem, the Government has stopped any serious enforcement of the legislative requirement that would-be sponsors have a good record of training Australians.
These changes, combined with a weak monitoring regime only introduced five years after the doors were thrown open by the introduction of Roach's new 'flexible' entry arrangements have resulted in the daily flow of media horror stories of the exploitation of temporary migrant workers now turning into a flood.
The sum total of the various changes equals the deregulation of entry of temporary foreign labour rules and unquestionably this development is now having a serious downward pressure effect on local wages and conditions in various parts of the country.
And isn't the hypocrisy of John Howard at its height around this issue?
Howard has sold himself to the Australian public as the man who has protected our borders - he told us he was not going to let a few thousand asylum seekers breach the integrity of our borders. What a load of bunkum - from the politician who has been quietly colluding with big business to allow a major surge of temporary migrant labour into the country.
And when you add into the mix that Howard has deliberately sat on a 1999 DIMIA enquiry recommending strong sanctions against Australian employers who mistreat guest labour and employ illegal migrant workers, it's clear the Howard Government has no qualms about serving only the profit motive of its constituency.
And all this from the Government that has presided over a training crisis in Australia. The skills shortage is biting in various occupations precisely because the Howard Government will neither commit the resources nor hold their business friends to account in training young Australians. Under funding of TAFE alone has cost 300,000 young Australians the chance to become skilled workers.
And as this mess unfolds, youth unemployment is still twice the national average. Young Australians desperate for apprenticeships miss out because of Government indifference and employer short-sightedness.
And, in the latest bizarre chapter to this story, we now have the Overseas Apprentices program where youngsters from distant lands are going to be brought to work as apprentices in regional and remote locations with up-front costs met by the family of the young worker.
So Australian employers will have yet another source of cheap, vulnerable overseas labour - the alternative to offering above-award attractive rates of pay to entice young Australians from the cities to the regions doesn't enter employer thinking. Why go down this more expensive route when there are cheaper sources of labour from overseas?
The bottom line is John Howard's Government stands naked on his policy failures in the area of training Australians and, conversely, his quick fix of importing ever greater numbers of vulnerable overseas workers.
John Sutton is National Secretary CFMEU Building and Construction division.
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