4/30/08

Guest workers are not the answer, training our own is

John Sutton

April 30, 2008

Kevin Rudd's 2020 Summit may have hit some sweet notes but it got one issue profoundly wrong. By advocating so-called "labour mobility from the Asia-Pacific" it was embracing a key big-business demand that has the potential to devastate our labour market and open up major social divisions.

The push for the free movement of labour from the Asia-Pacific to Australia comes from the same people who gave us the failed Work Choices policy.

The summit notionally qualified its support for this policy with the proposition that the new guest workers should be paid according to Australian standards. This stipulation is not new. The labour laws were meant to protect 457 visa workers who have been found time and again in the past five years to be underpaid and exploited and deported if they claimed unfair treatment.

Make no mistake - the large movement of guest workers from the Asia-Pacific to our small labour market would have profound effects on the ability of governments or unions to uphold standards. This policy would lead to the "Mexicanisation" of our job market.

This two-track model is playing itself out in the world in Western Europe and the Middle East. Probably nowhere is the social experiment more advanced than in the Gulf states. What one sees around Dubai, for instance, are palaces of opulence rising out of the desert for citizens of the United Arab Emirates - off the back of the vast pool of cheap labour from the Asian subcontinent that lives in enclaves that are out of sight and out of mind.

Having temporary migrant status compared to permanent migrant status is the key difference with guest workers. Traditional migrants' difficulties pale into insignificance when you consider the circumstances of guest workers. Their right to stay in the country is completely dependent on their employer.

More often than not the conversation between an employer and a guest worker with a complaint goes as follows:

Worker: Boss, I'm not getting some rights and entitlements I should be getting under Australian law.

Employer: I'm giving you $10 an hour. If you were at home you'd be getting $2 an hour.

Worker: Boss, I'm working very long hours, I haven't had a day off for months and I'm not getting overtime rates like Australians get.

Employer: You ungrateful sod. Put your head down and keep working or you will be on a plane home.

End of conversation.

It's all very well for the Rudd Government to claim it can redress this situation with changes to the 457 visa regime. While the worker does not have the freedom to stay in the country, there is huge capacity for abuse and exploitation.

At the global level the World Bank advocates the spread of guest worker arrangements. Similarly, countries with vast pools of low-skilled workers are agitating through free trade agreements to place their workers overseas to obtain remittances from the host country.

While one can understand the point of view of these countries, it doesn't mean Australia should rush towards the two-track labour market without fully understanding the consequences.

There is a tried and true nation-building formula that has stood us in good stead and we need to return to it. It's called training our own people, particularly our youth, and committing to a strong permanent migration program.

Those employers who use the constant refrain of "We can't get Australians to do hard and dirty work" ought to stop leaving the last three words off their complaint. Those three words, "at low pay", tell the real story.

John Sutton is national secretary of the CFMEU.

This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/04/29/1209234861913.html

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