Bringing In Foreigners Will Just Not Work

Over the last 20 years big business has been allowed to walk away from any responsibility it once had to train young Australians. The current business model for skills development is to invest nothing, and then insist that the cost of training be socialised.

When the shortcomings of this system become apparent the solution pushed is the importation of malleable, underpaid 457 workers from overseas. And make no mistake about it, 457 visa workers are paid less than locals.

The natural end game, of course, is a Gulf States-style permanent underclass of temporary, low-paid workers to put constant downward pressure on wages. It may seem like a long way off now, but who would seriously doubt that the likes of Gina 'Special Economic Zones' Rinehart would baulk at such a push?

 At the same time as business has deserted the training arena, demography has caught up with the apprenticeship system.

Under modern awards an electrical apprentice can earn as little as $225 a week.

Twenty years ago, an apprentice was almost always under 19 years old, living at home with mum and dad.  Today half of all apprentices are older than that. By their mid twenties, many have still not completed their training.

The modern apprentice tends to be older, better educated and on the cusp of confronting major life decisions - like getting a mortgage, moving in with a partner or having children.

That's why almost four in 10 are leaving their apprenticeships. If you're not paid a livable wage, how can you make major life decisions?

Can you imagine running a car, feeding kids or - heavens forbid - enjoying the odd night out on $225 a week?

Chris Bowen's Roy Hill announcement last week was a potent and stinging example of these two large changes meeting - employer recalcitrance on skills training collided with the fraying national apprentice system and, as a result, Gina was able to grab the solution she was looking for.

I have travelled in the Pilbara extensively throughout the resources boom, meeting with members.  It really is "the wild west."  The sheer isolation of most of these big projects means that Government oversight as to what goes on is absolutely negligible.

This climate means that that 457 workers are far less likely to stick up for their rights at work and far more likely to undercut Australian pay and conditions.  They know they are on the first plane home if they buck too hard.  The situation is unfair on both 457 and Australian workers.

During the Howard years, there were countless examples of gross exploitation of 457 workers and the situation is only likely to be worse in remote areas. 

Union opposition to a free-for-all on 457 visas will no doubt continue to be painted by those who are keen to fling the gates open to endless guest workers as xenophobic. The absurdity of this charge would become clear to any critic who actually took a look at the diversity of union membership.

The beef is not with foreign workers. We are fully supportive of a permanent skilled migration program, just not an exploitative temporary program. That's not xenophobia, that's a core union value.

The expectation that all Australians deserve to benefit from the resources boom is a legitimate one.  Where there are well-paid jobs in the resources sector Australians should be the first choice of contractors.

Employers should have to demonstrate that they have advertised nationally to fill vacancies before even being considered for permission to bring in overseas labour. That simply did not happen in the case of Roy Hill.

Furthermore, all major projects in the resources sector should be forced to take on Australian apprentices.  Our nation deserves a skills dividend from the resources boom, which is why there should be a minimum ratio of one apprentice for every three tradesmen on these big jobs.

If we fixed apprentice wages and insisted on our mining billionaires being fair dinkum on training, we could go a long way to solving this skills crisis. Community concern would recede along with the case for EMAs.