Labor has flagged a further crackdown on foreign worker visas a day after Bill Shorten and senior shadow ministers held private talks with a group of unions angry over the Opposition’s support for the regional free trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
In a crisis meeting chaired by ACTU president Michele O’Neil in Melbourne on Monday, Mr Shorten, opposition trade spokesman Jason Clare, and opposition employment and workplace relations spokesman Brendan O’Connor sought to calm officials from five trade unions who remain angry over the TPP provision that would waive labour market testing for workers from Canada, Peru, Mexico, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Last week, The Australian Financial Review revealed the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union threatened to withdraw all financial and in-kind support for Labor as a result, and is boycotting a major fundraising dinner entitled Fortess NSW being organised by the NSW Labor branch and which Mr Shorten is due to address.
A source said Monday’s meeting was “positive” but the AMWU, which was represented by national secretary Paul Bastion, was still going to boycott the fundraiser. Others at the meeting were Transport Workers Union national secretary Tony Sheldon, the Community and Public Sector Union’s Victorian secretary Karen Batt, National Union of Workers national secretary Tim Kennedy and Electrical Trades Union Victorian assistant state secretary David Mier.
With the backing of the Greens, the unions are lobbying Labor senators to oppose the legislation ratifying the TPP, which the government wants passed before Christmas. It needs Labor’s support in the Senate.
Labor has already supported the legislation in the lower house and Mr Shorten said it will not reverse its support in the Senate, as uncomfortable as he was with some of the provisions, which also include an investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clause for Canada.
He argued last week the TPP overall was a net positive for the economy.
“This TPP is good for farmers, good for higher education, good for some of our manufacturing and steel sectors,” he said.
“But I think it is too slack when it allows people to come into this country to take jobs on a temporary basis which priority should go to Australians.”
Tougher labour market testing
It is understood Mr Shorten and his shadow ministers again told the unions that if elected, Labor would try to negotiate away these provisions with TPP member states and would never sign a free trade deal, multilateral or bilateral, which included them.
However, while the TPP was effectively a done deal, Labor would, in general, have more to say on the issuing of temporary work visas, given there were 1.6 million people on Australia currently on such arrangements.
In May last year, the Turnbull government dumped the 457 visa scheme and replaced it with a new visa regime that was much more tightly targeted.
At the time, Mr Shorten upped the ante, promising higher fees for using temporary foreign labour and further limits to the eligible range of occupations. The revenue from the fees would be used to establish a SkillUP Training Fund to better train Australia workers.
He also announced Labor would establish the Australian Skills Authority, which would be an independent, labour market testing body to ensure there was a genuine skills shortage before foreign labour could be used.
On Tuesday, Mr O’Connor singled out tougher labour market testing as well as a crackdown on the abuse of student and holiday visas. A source said there would be measures additional to those announced last year.
“We need to bring in proper labour market testing,” Mr O’Connor said.
“We, of course, accept there are occasions where you need to access overseas labour in a temporary way to fill shortages in our labour market. But what is happening at the moment, under this government’s watch, is they’re allowing employers to access labour too quickly.”
Australians ‘missing out’
He said student and holiday visas were being exploited and needed a stronger compliance regime.
“There are too many situations where people are not here to study or not here to take a holiday, they’re here to work, and people are missing out,” he said.
“You’ve got 1.8 million Australians … looking for some work or looking for more work.
“They’re either underemployed or unemployed. If you’ve got 1.6 million temporary visa holders … you have a situation where people are missing out.”
On Tuesday, Population Minister Alan Tudge announced again the government, rather than limit population growth, would try to force some new migrants to the regions for at least five years using a special visa.
Mr O’Connor said this “thought bubble” could exacerbate unemployment in regional areas.
“When we’re examining congestion, when we’re examining job opportunities for the underemployed or unemployed in this country, we need to consider whether, in fact, the government has properly ensured that we use these visas properly. “