Unions have savaged Tony Abbott’s industry statement, which did little to address the cuts announced in the May Budget, did nothing to save the manufacturing sector and allowed greater use of 457 visas with unemployment at a 12-year high.
Mr Abbott’s agenda set out a series of so-called ambitions that Australia “must pursue to ensure job creation and higher living standards”.
First was a lower cost, business-friendly environment with less regulation, lower taxes and more competitive markets.
There was also mention of a more skilled labour force, better economic infrastructure and industry policy that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship.
“This is simply code for union-busting and cutting wages and conditions,” MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin said.
“The Abbott Government is engaged in social engineering by trying to kill of manufacturing for no other reason that it is unionised.
“We have completely unnatural economics right now – the US exchange rate was $1.08 with zero interest rates, now it’s down to 88 cents.
“What the Abbott Government wants is a manufacturing industry with guest labour and weak unions."
Mr Crumlin said this was an important backdrop to the MUA’s elections next year.
“We will do our best to insulate our members and open up the opportunities that they deserve,” he said.
MUA Deputy National Secretary Mick Doleman said unions were concerned about the increasing use of exploitive employment visas such as 457s and Maritime Crew Visas under the Abbott Government.
“We’re also worried about the development of training opportunities for rural, regional and Indigenous workers,” Mr Doleman said.
“The announcement of a little over $200 million for the Vocational Education and Training sector is dwarfed by the $1 billion they cut from skills and innovation in the Federal Budget just five short months ago.”
Addressing the MUA National Council, Opposition Immigration and Border Protection spokesman Richard Marles said unions and Labor have a great campaigning opportunity.
“Out in the community, student visas and 457s are considered to be a problem - we can get on the front foot,” he said.
Mr Marles criticised the Abbott Government for reducing the English language requirements for workers employed under the 457 skilled visa program.
“The Abbott Government has downgraded the current English language requirements without providing a single example of an employer that has experienced a labour shortage because of the current requirements,” he said.
“Communication is a vital part of any workplace, and reducing the English language requirement risks reducing workplace safety as well as leaving overseas workers at risk of being exploited by dodgy employers.
“Rather than undermine Australian jobs by loosening the rules surrounding the 457 skilled visa program, the Abbott Government should focus on coming up with a jobs plan that helps Australian workers.
“At a time when Australia is facing its highest unemployment rate in a decade, this is another example of the Abbott Government failing to stand up for Australian jobs.
“The role of the 457 skilled visa program is to provide a capacity to meet specific skills shortages to support economic growth. It should not to be a short cut to replace Australian jobs.”
ACTU President Ged Kearney also questioned the changes to the flawed 457 visa program that has been shown to be poorly targeted and open to rorting.
“With unemployment at a 12 year high, it is mind boggling that the Government is making it easier for employers to bring in foreign workers.”
Unions have always maintained that employers must show they have tested the labour market locally before looking for workers overseas, while employers who do recruit workers on 457 visas must also invest in training local workers as well.
Ms Kearney said lowering English standards for 457 visa holders and freezing minimum pay rates for two years will see foreign workers more easily exploited and increases the risk of injuries and deaths at work.
“If workers can’t read safety standards and procedures then their lives and their colleague’s lives are being put at risk.”
Australian Unions have renewed their call for a Senate Inquiry into the 457 visa program to ensure it is a transparent and regulated system that puts local jobs and training first.
“If this is all they have, it would be more credible to say they are not having an in industry policy at all,” Ms Kearney said.
CFMEU National Secretary Michael O’Connor said the Abbott Government’s announcement of reforms to the 457 Visa program has ignored serious flaws with the program.
“The Government’s announcement today that it will lower the English language requirements for workers on 457 Visas is a dangerous mistake,” he said.
Only one work-related death of a 457 Visa worker has been recorded since the former Government introduced the current 457 Visa minimum English language standards in September 2009.
But when English language standards were lower, 11 workers on 457 visas lost their lives in work- related incidents in just 3 years. All except one were from countries where English is not the first language.
The combination of poor English language skills, the dependency of 457 visa workers on their employer and poor enforcement of 457 regulations is a lethal one.
The Government said it is “maintaining strong safeguards against abuse” but Mr O’ Connor said this shows that it is in denial about the widespread rorts in the 457 Visa program.
A recent audit by the Fair Work Ombudsman found breaches of visa conditions in 40 per cent of the 1,800 cases it investigated. This included underpayment of wages, and workers not doing the jobs they got their visas for.
The CFMEU raised serious allegations of abuse of 457 visa workers at Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill project with the Government in March this year.
“We’ve heard nothing meaningful from them in the eight months since.
“This is a system riddled with rorts that the Government refuses to acknowledge, let alone do anything about.”
The Government has also claimed that its 457 Visa program will ensure that foreign workers supplement, rather than substitute Australia workers.
“Employers aren’t legally required to advertise for locals first under most 457 Visa occupations. If the Government was genuine about giving local workers first choice on jobs, it would change the law. We aren’t holding our breath.”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the so-called competitiveness agenda from the Abbott Government is simply a package of reheated Labor reforms and re-announcements.
“With no funding and little by way of new policy, it is clear that the Government’s real agenda is scrounging savings – not investing for growth,” he said.
“The Government’s approach to building competitiveness is fundamentally dishonest: it has no credibility, coming on the back of $9 billion in cuts to higher education, science, research, innovation and industry programs.”
“The five Industry Growth Centres announced as part of the competitiveness agenda are a poor imitation of Labor’s $500 million Innovation Precincts,” Mr Shorten said.
The Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union (AMWU) said the package does nothing to repair the damage already done to Australian industry by the Abbott Government.
"It's like being given $20 for a cab fare by a robber, after he’s taken your wallet, phone and car," AMWU National Secretary Paul Bastian said.
Since coming to power, the Abbott Government has announced the abolition of Commercialisation Australia, axed Enterprise Connect, slashed 10 Industry Innovation Precincts, and cut a $350 million venture capital fund.
“The Prime Minister failed to secure the future of our automotive industry. He is considering offshoring Naval shipbuilding, and has made deep cuts to the CSIRO,” said Mr Bastian.
“The announcement is nothing more than a con designed to make it appear the government is doing something about getting industry more competitive and growing jobs.
"In reality, it’s a small step forward after some huge steps back and falls massively short of what’s needed," he said.
The Government’s Budget outlines $970 million of cuts to former Labor policies designed to improve research and industry collaboration.
These programs were delivered after collaboration with industry and unions.
Deputy Greens Leader and Industry spokesperson, Adam Bandt said Tony Abbott’s new industry policy identifies some winners but backs many losers, ignores ‘white collar’, ‘pink collar’ and ‘green collar’ industries and leaves science woefully underfunded.
“You can’t put science at the centre of industry policy while cutting science spending to a 30-year low,” said Mr Bandt.
“Here’s a question for the new ‘innovative mathematics resources’ funded by today’s announcement: if you cut $111m from CSIRO but then only put $12m back into science, where does the country end up?
“We need to lift our science spending by $2-3bn to match our trading partners, something the Prime Minister clearly hasn’t grasped.
“For a Prime Minister who says he doesn’t want to ‘pick winners’, he’s happy to back quite a few losers.
“The Greens strongly support playing to our strengths and our competitive advantages, but for this to work they must be real winners, like medical technology and advanced manufacturing, not just Liberal Party backers from the resources sector.
“Glaringly absent is any commitment to renewable energy, tourism, education, aged care or professional services outside of the resources sector, all of which offer huge potential for Australia this century.”