The federal government will make it easier for employers across Northern Australia to import guest workers as the $34 billion Ichthys gas project creates labour shortages in the Top End.
The Northern Territory is set to be approved under the first so-called “designated area migration agreement” followed by Western Australia’s Pilbara.
The agreements are designed to free up businesses outside the resources industry to hire semi-skilled workers without having to meet the strict language, salary and training requirement of other migration programs.
A spokesman for Assistant Immigration Minister Michaelia Cash said the Territory agreement would be in place shortly and the Pilbara deal “should be in place by the end of the year”.
Draft guidelines propose that state governments, local councils and chambers of commerce will be able to sponsor the agreements, nominating the employers who can participate.
Employers will be able to seek concessions on English-language requirements, skills benchmarks and minimum salaries.
Unions oppose the agreements and accuse the Abbott government of handing over their migration powers to employer groups.
The Northern Territory government has been working with the federal government on the plan, and a spokesman said they wanted the agreements implemented as soon as possible.
Up to 10,000 people will be employed at the LNG plant site south-west of Darwin, where Inpex is mid-way through building a 8.4 million tonne per year plant.
NT chamber of commerce chief executive Greg Bicknell said locals were flocking to the gas project en masse, leaving Darwin’s other businesses desperately short of staff at all levels.
“A designated area migration agreement was to expand the 457 visa program to enable people to be brought in under a wider range of occupations,” he said.
“There is some scope to have some flexibility in English language requirements, also in skill levels.”
Mr Bicknell said this was important because as skilled workers were gobbled up by the project, crippling vacancies had emerged at the semi-skilled and unskilled level.
He named retail managers, bus drivers, restaurant supervisors, plant operators and chefs as occupations that should be listed in the agreement.
“We actually have a shortage of bus drivers at the moment because they are bussing everyone on to the work site so everyone with a bus licence is doing that,” he said.
“When they opened the workers camp they took 60 middle management people out of the hotel sector up here. In a place the size of Darwin that’s a major impact.”
Ms Cash’s spokesman said any designated area migration agreement will “supplement rather than substitute Australian workers”.
A briefing quietly posted online by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection says once a migration agreement is in place, it will allow a designated area representative to endorse an employer to participate.
“An employer can sponsor an overseas worker for up to four years,” the briefing says. “These agreements are tailored to suit the employer’s circumstances, including the number of overseas workers and the occupations to be filled.”
In 2012, Labor announced it would introduce regional migration and enterprise migration agreements. Contentiously, Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill iron ore project was granted an enterprise deal but it has never been used.
In early 2013, executives in charge of the $9.5 billion project, which is majority-owned by Mrs Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting, said the labour market had cooled sufficiently to source all 8000 construction workers needed locally.
Electrical Trades Union national secretary Allen Hicks slammed the proposed agreements.
“[They] will undermine the 457 process because they apply to unskilled labour and effectively amount to the federal government outsourcing the visa process to the area representatives,” he said.
“Designated area migration agreement will simply be a mechanism for employers to avoid what little obligations they have currently under the 457 scheme on labour market testing, wage thresholds and training.”
The federal government is also finalising a review of the 457 visa program.
There are 12,000 people worldwide currently working on the $US34 billion Ichthys project.
Inpex managing director for the project, Louis Bon, has been surprised at just how many of the workers at the Darwin site have been sourced from the local area, with the percentage running at an unexpectedly high 61 per cent.
Cafe owner Pippa Jane Ainsworth has just opened her second business and it is located in Darwin’s industrial hub of Winellie.
She said she could not be sure that the project was the reason she was doing a robust trade. “There is certainly a lot of economic activity happening all over Darwin,” she said.
While the government’s draft guideline emphasise the fact that local workforce development must occur first, the Australian Council of Trade Unions is wary. “The department and minister should provide a public analysis that addresses the change in economic and employment circumstances since regional migration agreements were first conceived, and provide evidence (if any) to justify that there is a genuine need for designated area migration agreement in 2014 and beyond,” the union peak body said in its submission to the consultation process.
“For example, Geelong has previously been mooted as a location for a regional migration agreements. This would be clearly unacceptable now given the major job losses, current and ongoing, from major employers in that region.
“Unions consider that such an analysis would conclude on the evidence there is no longer any need for regional migration agreements or designated area migration agreement, now or in the foreseeable future.
The ACTU said it should be made clear that the agreements are not designed to be a low wage, low skill program.
“While the guidelines indicate such concessions would be available in limited circumstances only, in our submission they should not be entertained at all and such references should be removed from the guidelines.”
“These sorts of provisions in the draft guidelines only serve to confirm a view that the main purpose of designated area migration agreements is to provide a mechanism for employers to avoid obligations in the standard 457 visa program.”
Reinvent Your Career would like to thank the Financial Review where this article first appeared.