Senate debates

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Statements by Senators

China-Australia Free Trade Agreement

1:25 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Abbott government like to pretend that they are the friend of the Australian worker, but their track record betrays a very different agenda. For two years now, they have been using every means at their disposal to drive down the pay and conditions of hardworking Australians. They have attacked penalty rates and the minimum wage. They have failed to broker a single enterprise bargaining agreement with public sector agencies. They axed the low-income superannuation contribution, costing workers who earn less than $37,000 precious retirement money. They delayed promised superannuation increases for seven years, wiping $20,000 from the average Australian retirement nest egg. But what is particularly galling is that, while they have been driving down outcomes for Australian workers, they have also been laying out the legislative welcome mat for foreign workers.

Consider their 2014 decision to reopen a loophole in the legislation surrounding 457 visas, which allows employers to hire an unlimited number of workers with no scrutiny. Or take their Aussie-job-killing coastal shipping legislation. The government's modelling estimated that this legislation would save businesses $21.4 million. What the government do not want you to know is that this modelling also reveals that $19 million of the 'saving' comes in the form of reduced labour costs as boats serving on coastal routes are opened up to foreign workers. That is right—close to 90 per cent of the claimed 'benefits' of this legislation comes in the form of lost Aussie jobs. A saving to private businesses that is made at the expense of Australian jobs is ill-considered, short-sighted and, quite frankly, reckless. Look at their broken promise to build 12 submarines in South Australia that was trashed after the election and replaced with a plan to send these important strategic builds overseas.

But the government is not content with just gifting Australian maritime jobs to foreign workers. The China free trade agreement would open the door to the routine importation of foreign workforces on major projects. If it goes ahead, it could be a wholesale Australian job killer, putting as many as 158,000 jobs on the line. Labor supports robust agreements that open up Australia to increased trade opportunities. I understand that good trade deals can open up markets, increase exports, deliver lower prices for consumers and drive economic growth. But I cannot blindly support a deal that paves the way for mass importation of foreign workers at the expense of Australian jobs. Not all agreements are created equal, and not all agreements provide benefits that outweigh the concessions. We should not support any deal at any cost. A poor quality deal can do more damage than good.

In brokering this deal, the Abbott government has sabotaged one of the key goals of trade deals: the creation of safe, secure and well-paid jobs for Australian workers. Under this deal, Chinese companies will be able to bring in their own workforces on any project worth more than $150 million—and Australian workers, their families and their communities will pay the price. In an attempt to cover up the truth, the government has set in place a concerted propaganda campaign of misinformation about the China free trade agreement. They have tried to pretend that the agreement will now allow unrestricted access to the Australian labour market by Chinese workers. In fact, this is completely untrue and the proof of this lies in chapter 10 of the agreement, which concerns the movement of natural persons. Here it is laid out in black and white that Australia will not 'impose or maintain any limitations on the total number of visas to be granted'. Not only is the government allowing the wholesale importation of foreign workers, but also the agreement removes the requirement for labour market testing. Labour market testing is a standing and vital component of any consideration for foreign labour in this country. It requires employers to first go to the local market and look for suitably qualified Australian workers who could fill the position. Before they can proceed with hiring foreign workers, companies must first be able to prove there are no Australians who could do the job. Again, the government has been out spreading misinformation about this vital exclusion, trying to convince Australians that labour market testing is included in the agreement. The truth is that the agreement lays out in black and white that Chinese companies will be able to bring in foreign workers with no requirement to look for local labour first. In fact, chapter 10 is clear that Australia will not impose labour market testing for certain categories of Chinese temporary migrants. It states:

… neither Party shall … require labour market testing, economic needs testing or other procedures of similar effect as a condition for temporary entry.

This removes labour market testing for contractors, installers and servicers, and the agreement defines these categories so broadly that they will include a wide range of occupations.

Joanna Howe, an expert in temporary labour migration law at the University of Adelaide, said that the agreement was 'a very weak protection for local workers'. On this issue, she said:

The department will say … they need to be assured there is a genuine need in terms of labour supply, but that requirement only exists at a policy level. And a legal status of policy does not have the same ramifications as the legal status of the agreement.

Not too long ago, Prime Minister Abbott very clearly committed to retaining labour market testing requirements for temporary migration. He was asked by a journalist:

There are changes in here about the 457 visa programme. I just wanted to check … will you be making any changes on labour market testing?

The Prime Minister replied:

On the 457s, labour market testing will remain, but we want to be easier to engage in.

Clearly the China free trade agreement before us at the moment is just another broken promise from a government that cannot be trusted to look after Australian jobs. Not only is there no requirement for labour market testing but Chinese companies will also be able to bring in workers with lower skills than are currently allowed under the current visa program.

International migration expert Professor Stuart Rosewarne from the University of Sydney has said that the agreement goes further than any other agreement ever has to open up Australia's labour market to foreign workforces. On this issue he said:

Free trade or economic agreements with South Korea and Japan include clauses that set out the terms for the movement of "natural persons", essentially skilled and professional workers and business people, but the memorandum goes well beyond these categories to include semi- and low-skilled workers.

Again the government has been out on the campaign trail saying that there are no changes to the required skill levels for Chinese visa applicants. A government fact sheet on the matter states that the agreement 'will not allow unskilled or underpaid Chinese workers to be brought in to staff major projects.' Again, their own agreement documentation shows that this is totally untrue. The side letter on skills assessment and testing to the agreement, dated 17 June 2015, clearly states:

Australia will remove the requirement for mandatory skills assessment for the following ten occupations on the date of entry into force of the Agreement.

Automotive Electrician … Cabinetmaker … Carpenter … Carpenter and Joiner … Diesel Motor Mechanic … Electrician (General) … Electrician (Special Class) … Joiner … Motor Mechanic (General) … Motorcycle Mechanic …

In this light it is not surprising that the ABC's recent Fact Check confirmed that the fear that the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement threatens Australian jobs actually checks out. The absolute insanity of selling out Australian jobs comes into stark contrast when you consider the mess those opposite have made of the economy. There are now more unemployed Australians than at any point since 1994, and how does the government respond? It packages up scarce remaining job opportunities on the horizon and gives them directly to foreign workers. It is outrageous that the government now plans to spend millions of taxpayers' dollars on a propaganda campaign to try to convince Australians that giving away their jobs is a good thing. It is unbelievable.

As I mentioned earlier, Labor understand the value of a good free trade agreement. We also understand the incredible opportunities that being part of the Asia-Pacific region brings. Our relationship with China will be critical to our future economic growth, and that is why we worked hard to progress this agreement when we were in government. But we would never hang Australian workers out to dry as Prime Minister Abbott has. Australians cannot and should not try to compete with other nations on wages and conditions. To do so would be to engage in a race to the bottom, to the detriment of Australian workers. Clearly, this is an ill-considered agreement that has sold out Australian workers, and anyone in this place who cares about Australian jobs should rail against it.