LABOURING OVER CHINA TRADE DEAL
BARNABY Joyce loves a roast. Eating them, and giving them.
When the then Nationals senator claimed the price of the national dish would skyrocket to $100 under Labor’s emissions trading scheme, it was the beginning of the end for community consensus on a price on carbon. The ALP, who continuously had to defend introducing a “great big new tax’’, was fuming. It struggled to explain a complex policy in a sound bite while Coalition MPs captured the public’s attention by warning them the Sunday lamb roast was dead.
Five years later, the Coalition is struggling to be heard on the complex details of its Free Trade Agreement with China.
“Chinese companies will be e able to bring in an entire workforce from overseas … without even advertising for local workers first,’’ the Electrical Trades Union has told rallies throughout the country.
It has claimed Chinese electricians will not have their qualifications assessed, which will endanger any Australian who uses electricity.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who will likely, ultimately, support the deal, is, for the time being, being coy. He has raised concerns about the rights of Australian workers.
“This is a get square,’’ says one Labor Party tactician, who argues the Coalition is getting what it deserves.
Another Labor source says the ALP can use the FTA to scare the bejesus out of the electorate leading up to the next election – helping parachute Shorten into the Lodge. Meanwhile Abbott is trumpeting the multibilliondollar deal. Chinese tariffs will be phased out, meaning Australian products and services will be cheaper and more sought after by a 300-million strong middle class in China. But it also enables China to apply to bring in its own workers. This is where the tension lies.
Nonetheless, businesses, industry associations, commerce groups, former Labor legends and current ALP premiers have said the deal is a good one.
And it can be revealed today Master Electricians Australia – an electrical contractor association that has rallied against the importation of cheap Chinese electrical products – is backing the deal.
Chief executive Malcolm Richards has dismissed concerns about so-called dodgy Chinese qualifications, releasing an eight-point process showing how difficult it would be for Chinese electricians to work in Australia.
It includes stringent testing and supervision. Regardless of their experience, a Chinese electrician will only receive a provisional licence, which requires them to be supervised for 12 months while completing Australian training. Then the visa-holder can apply for a full tradesperson’s licence with a state or territory licensing authority.
“We don’t have any fears of this deal. (There will not be) hundreds of Chinese electricians flooding into the country,’’ Richards tells Insight.
“If this deal proceeds, there will be thousands more Australian jobs. It is a very depressed market at the moment. It’s very easy to create a fear campaign. The feeling starts when a parent of a son who cannot get a job as an electrician (is told about the deal).’’
Richards says it is difficult to get a 457 visa to work as an electrician in Australia and doubts many Chinese would come.
Richard Holyman, owner of Martin and Pleasance, which manufactures natural medicines and has sites in Queensland, Victoria and NSW NSW, say says an FTA with China would add up to $10 million to his business each year and add a further 40 people to his 140-strong workforce.
“I don’t employ anyone on a 457 visa and I don’t intend to,’’ Holyman says.
“I don’t understand how anyone could question this arrangement with China.
“Just take New Zealand, they’ve got the run on us two years ago.’’
He says Blackmores, another natural health brand, was worth about $400 million before New Zealand’s FTA and now it is worth $2 billion.
Sally McPherson, of Sunshine Coast-based business iSeekPlan, which matches earthmoving companies with construction and mining projects, also wants the deal to go ahead. McPherson says the mining industry needs a stimulus hit and a deal with China would spark investment in exploration.
But Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Dave Oliver says the FTA “is really a dud deal that sells out local jobs particularly when we have an unemployment rate with a six in front of it’’.
He cites claims levelled against 7-Eleven that foreign nationals in Australia were being paid below the minimum wage.
“We’re absolutely (worried) they (Chinese workers) could be subjected to exploitation.’’
While Oliver has support over his concerns over the 7-Eleven case, the difference is those workers were on student visas, not the more restrictive, more scrutinised 457 visa.
Opposition trade spokeswoman Penny Wong, on ABC Radio, said: “We do think this agreement does remove key safeguards in relation to labour market testing, that is making sure jobs are first offered to Australians before they can be offered to temporary migrants’’.
But the Government says labour market testing is guaranteed and in a statement to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties Inquiry into the FTA with China, Foreign Affairs and Trade deputy secretary Jan Adams tried to lay the matter to rest on August 17.
“Employers seeking to sponsor an overseas worker under an investment facilitation arrangement (which sits alongside the FTA) … must demonstrate a labour marked need and prove that Australians have been provided first opportunity through labour market testing, which includes providing evidence of significant recruitment efforts.’’
With overwhelming support for the China agreement from a plethora of former Labor luminaries and current state leaders, federal Labor risks another roasting if it continues to oppose the FTA.