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12 August 2014

NT's move to relax 457 visas 'an attack on young unemployed'

Greens and unions condemn concessions on visa requirements amid labour shortage created by giant gas project

A computer-generated image of the Ichthys project, now under construction in Darwin

Employers in the Northern Territory are to be given concessions for employing foreign workers to fill a labour gap created by the $34bn Ichthys gas project but the Greens and trade unions have labelled it an attack on young unemployed Australians.

The first “designated area migration agreement” (Dama) is expected to be approved and enacted imminently for the Northern Territory, and for the Pilbara later this year, reports the Australian Financial Review. The Dama will allow employers to hire low- and semi-skilled workers to fill vacancies in non-resources sectors without needing to meet strict foreign-worker employment requirements under 457 visa programs.

The project’s LNG processing plant is under construction in Darwin and will reportedly employ up to 10,000 people once completed. Large numbers of workers are leaving local industries to secure lucrative work on the project.

To address the labour shortage the Dama allows an employer – once endorsement from an agreement representative has been sought – to hire a foreign worker for up to four years, under agreements “tailored to suit the employer’s circumstances”, according to a briefing on the Department of Immigration and Border Protection website.

Draft guidelines for a Dama outline potential concessions to the regular 457 visa hiring arrangement, including English-language requirements, skills and experience requirements and, in limited circumstances, the temporary skilled migration income threshold.

The deputy leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt, said the government was “forcing people to live in poverty or accept below award wages” by excluding the Northern Territory from national labour laws. He said young unemployed people in the Northern Territory would be competing with foreign workers.

“These young people at the moment are going to be told, ‘If you don’t find a job you have to spend six months without any income because we’re taking away your dole,’ but on the other hand are any employers going to give young people a job when they can employ someone from overseas for half the wages?”

Under proposed federal budget measures opposed by Labor and the Greens, more than 100,000 young people would have to wait six months without unemployment benefits before having to commit to 25 hours a week in a work-for the dole scheme. They would also be required to complete 40 job applications each month. Social services groups have warned this would cause “deeply disturbing” knock-on effects.

The head of the Darwin chamber of commerce, Greg Bicknell, suggested the reaction to the low income threshold concession in the Dama was overblown.

The concession, he said, was to address inconsistencies in certain sectors such as childcare and care for elderly people, where the income threshold of $53,900 set for all 457 visa workers was higher than the award for that specific job.

“It really creates some issues in those industries in being able to bring people in,” he said. “You’ll have local workers working in a workplace and people coming in as foreign workers who are required to be paid more than them. It just doesn’t make sense.”

The draft guidelines say overseas workers recruited under the Dama agreement must be employed under conditions “no less favourable” than those provided to Australian workers.

Bicknell said the business community and territory government had been trying for five years to attract workers from around Australia but had not had success at the level the region needs. “People do come from interstate but their endgame is to get on the project,” Bicknell told Guardian Australia.

“They’re willing to move up here and work on the project for big dollars, but for those that we’re trying to attract to come into the normal economy, it’s a high-cost centre. People do their sums and say, ‘I’m better off staying in Adelaide or Geelong or wherever,’ rather than moving to Darwin and paying either high rent or purchase price on house.”

The federal government has introduced a relocation assistance program to encourage people who have been unemployed and on benefits for longer than 12 months to move for work, providing payments of up to $6,000. A similar scheme under the former Labor government filled just 452 of the 4,000 national places in the first 18 months of the two-year trial.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions president, Ged Kearney, suggested the economic advancements brought to the Darwin area by these big projects could enable businesses to pay a premium and attract interstate workers. She questioned the relaxation of 457 requirements even if there was a skills shortage.

She accused the government of “outsourcing its migration program to big business, in part the mining industry”.

“They’re going to get around very important regulations including salary thresholds, skill levels and language testing which will totally undermine the local workforce.

“Some of the jobs they cited are jobs like bus drivers, project managers – I don’t think Darwin deserves people to not have the required skill levels to do all of those jobs safely,” Kearney said.

“I’d be very concerned about the wellbeing of people on work sites if they were to lower the skill requirements on jobs like that.”

Employment figures show there are 18% fewer full-time youth workers compared with before the global financial crisis. Last week the unemployment level hit 6.4%, the highest since in 12 years. A Monash University report called for the immigration intake to be reduced because it had not been properly adjusted down from levels during the resources boom.

The Dama guidelines stipulate that reliance on the foreign workers “should be reduced” and the number of Australian workers increased over time, with local workers given training and employment opportunities first.

“Where the minister approves the use of skilled or semi-skilled overseas workers under a Dama, they are required to be suitably qualified and experienced and able to transfer their skills to less experienced Australian colleagues.”