Foreign workers are not the solution to a quick cleanup
The Queensland floods are the most economically damaging natural disaster in Australian history – but as reconstruction begins, we should be wary of a different type of deluge, of a far more avoidable type.
In December last year, ANU academic Peter McDonald made headlines when he suggested that foreign workers should be rushed into the country to work below Australian minimum wages and conditions.
Professor McDonald argued that Australia needed to accelerate the construction of major infrastructure and that the best way to achieve it would be to put the projects out to international tender, allowing the winning bidder to bring their own workers to remunerate and treat as they see fit.
His ideas were enthusiastically embraced by the usual suspects from the big end of town.
Professor McDonald was half right. Australia should indeed move quickly on major public projects to keep pace with our rapidly growing population. But we definitely don’t need to spiral down toward developing nation labour conditions to achieve it.
Fast-forward to February 2011, and a disaster-ravaged Queensland now needs a reconstruction effort of unprecedented proportions.
Those who were advocating a rush of cheap foreign workers in December are now predictably pointing to Queensland’s situation as a catalyst to speed up the process.
The federal government has taken a small step in this direction already, with approval waiting times for ‘457’ visas slashed to just five days.
But before we rush to import foreign labour, we should make every effort to make sure Australians are working first.
Despite conventional wisdom, there is a lot of spare capacity in our country’s labour market.
Our unemployment rate is currently 5 per cent – but that headline figure only goes a small way to explaining how many spare pairs of hands are actually available.
The labour force under-utilisation rate is a much better indicator. It’s derived by adding the unemployment rate to the important underemployment rate (people who are working less hours than they wish). In February 2008, before the GFC hit, it stood at 9.9 per cent. Today, it is 12.4 per cent.
The government, to its credit, has not ignored this reality. Julia Gillard has expanded a relocation program for the unemployed from 2000 to 4000 places to get them to where the jobs are.
Single job-seekers who have been out of work for three months will be paid up to $6000 in incentives, and families $9000, to move to regional Queensland to take a job.
Yet those pushing for a freer flow of cheap foreign workers into Australia are using the reconstruction of Queensland to push their case to accelerate and expand the 457 program.
According to their logic, the recent natural disasters are one-off freak events and importing a temporary labour force therefore makes sense.
Unfortunately, Australia simply cannot afford to operate from that premise.
Extreme weather events are becoming increasingly common across the globe as the climate changes.
The recent floods in Pakistan are the worst in that nation’s recorded history. The heatwave in Russia, likewise. Ocean temperatures are currently the highest on record. Across the globe people are being hammered by bafflingly extreme events, occurring with increasing frequency.
Climate change modelling has long predicted that global warming would lead to more frequent extreme weather events, including cyclones and bushfires. In our continent nation, already prone to natural disaster, we must confront this reality with forward-looking action.
We need a well-trained Australian labour force, with the capacity to handle major reconstruction efforts.
The work that will take place across Queensland provides a valuable opportunity for Australian apprentices to gain experience. The Government should move to boost their number immediately through greater incentives.
At times when reconstruction is not needed, an expanded Australian construction workforce should be employed across the nation on major infrastructure builds.
Our country needs to train the next generation of Aussie workers, operating under the fair pay and conditions that proceeding generations struggled for.
Our fair working conditions separate us from less scrupulous regimes. Importing thousands of foreign workers to toil below national minimum standards might work for Saudi Arabia, but Australians are entitled to expect better.
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