Union leaders are seizing on Julia Gillard’s reshuffle to seek major changes to skills and migration policy amid claims that Australians are missing out on well-paid resource industry jobs that are going to thousands of foreign workers.
The labour movement will press incoming immigration minister Brendan O’Connor to tighten the rules on vast resource projects as part of a new agenda that also includes rethinking policies on skilled migration and apprenticeships. The union push comes as federal Labor MPs are expected to step up their support for tougher migration rules at a meeting tomorrow of a key caucus committee aimed at “spreading the benefits” of the resources boom.
Mr O’Connor, a former union official, is seen by caucus colleagues and union leaders as more sympathetic to concerns about Enterprise Migration Agreements than his predecessor Chris Bowen, who is moving to the tertiary education and skills portfolio.
The reshuffle reopens debate on the issue after the government gave in to union demands last June to rethink the approval of a controversial deal with Gina Rinehart’s $9.5 billion Roy Hill mine to bring in 1700 workers.
The Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union declared yesterday that the government and the new minister needed to reconsider the regime.
Behind the union campaign is the fear that a Coalition government would widen the use of Enterprise Migration Agreements, which allow resource giants to sign single deals to bring in semi-skilled workers for projects worth more than $2bn.
Mr O’Connor was not available for interviews yesterday but said through a spokeswoman that he was being briefed on the entire immigration and citizenship portfolio. He is to be sworn in today.
Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union national secretary Peter Tighe said the government had to strengthen the barriers to foreign workers this year to prevent an “open door” policy if Tony Abbott took power at the September 14 election.
Mr Tighe said the rise of a new minister meant there was a “new person and a fresh outlook” on the EMAs. “The scrutiny of EMAs needs to be tightened up,” he said.
“Our position is Australian jobs first.” He said employers had “grossly over-used” the 457 visas that allowed them to bring in skilled workers and that the safeguards on the enterprise migration agreements were not strong enough. “So we’ll be redoubling our efforts now there’s a new minister in place.”
CFMEU construction division national secretary Dave Noonan said the policy disregarded the important principle of filling jobs locally before looking overseas.
“No amount of rhetoric hides the fact that this is not happening,” he said.
“We’ve always been supportive of skilled migration but in order to have community support for it you’ve got to ensure the policy is working in the national interest. It’s something that the government and the new minister need to think seriously about.”
Mr Noonan said the Department of Immigration sided with business to allow “open slather” on skilled migration.
Mr O’Connor was a union official from 1986 to 2001 with positions including assistant national secretary of the Australian Services Union from 1993 to 2001.
One of the other union leaders supporting action on skills and migration is CFMEU national secretary Michael O’Connor, the minister’s brother and a man the Prime Minister described as her “closest confidant” in her first speech to parliament in 1998.
Caucus members, including Left convenor Doug Cameron, back the union push for greater action on Australian jobs, a key issue for a caucus committee set up last year to explore “spreading the benefits of the resources boom”.
The committee will meet tomorrow to press its argument.
While caucus members said they could not be sure whether Mr O’Connor would take a different approach to the matter, some said he would be more open to the union movement’s arguments.
“Brendan will be pretty sympathetic to putting Australian jobs first,” one MP said.
Unions are also seeking government action to increase the number of apprenticeships funded by employers. Mr Noonan said not enough was being done in vocational education to lift apprentice numbers and boost education.
Reinvent Your Career would like to thank The Australian where this article first appeared.