The ALP National Conference at end-July will likely have before it an urgency motion demanding changes to the foreign worker provisions in the China FTA as a condition for supporting the agreement, according to The Australian (‘Change or block unjust trade deals, MPs told’, 26 June 2015).
Driving the move is a cross-factional group of eight unions concerned about the impact on Australian workers of FTA provisions mandating easier access to Chinese 457 visa workers, in some cases unrestricted access.
On top of that, it has now emerged that an FTA side-letter removes mandatory skills assessments for Chinese 457 workers in ten trades including electricians and the main construction trades. This directly contradicts Abbott government assurances in November 2014 that Australia had committed only to ‘improving access to skills assessments” in the China FTA.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten wants Parliament to scrutinise the FTA and “the government to come clean on potential downside for Australian jobs and Australian safety and labour standards” (‘Union trying to cause a diversion: Robb’, The Daily Telegraph 29 June 2015).
Trade Minister Andrew Robb has said the government would not change the provisions in the deal “one wit” (sic) – presumably The Daily Telegraph meant ‘whit’. He was sure that unions opposing the deal ‘don’t understand’ the China agreement.
The unions increasingly understand what the China FTA labour mobility provisions actually mean for Australian workers, blue-collar and white-collar alike, but no thanks to Mr Robb. Instead of explaining and justifying these momentous provisions, Mr Robb and other Coalition Ministers have done everything to conceal the truth from the Australian community.
Immigration Minister Dutton or Assistant Immigration Minister Cash issued three media releases on the China FTA between 17 June when the deal was signed and 26 June – ‘New pilot visa to boost Australian tourism’, ‘New visa measures generate international buzz’ and ‘Minister Cash to visit China’.
In none of these statements do the Immigration Ministers even mention the momentous immigration concessions by Australia in the China FTA or their broader implications. The 457 visa program does not rate a mention, let alone that the China FTA removes the ability of all future Australian governments and Parliaments to apply labour market testing to all Chinese citizens in the standard 457 program.
Nor do the Ministers bother to even mention two other unprecedented immigration concessions by Australia in an FTA, or even outside an FTA: the ‘Infrastructure Facilitation Arrangements’ (IFAs) agreement with China allowing concessional 457 visas for skilled and semi-skilled Chinese workers, and the non- reciprocal ‘Work and Holiday’ visa agreement that provides ‘up to 5,000’ 462 visas each year for young Chinese to live and work in Australia for a year (extendable) with no reciprocal visa arrangement allowing any young Australians to visit and work in China, let alone 5,000.
These releases instead are mostly puff-pieces about the benefits for the tourism industry of changes to visitor visa rules for Chinese people, making it easier for Chinese tourists to visit and stay in Australia.
Minister Cash’s latest release informed us that in China this week she ‘will undertake meetings with Chinese government counterparts, industry stakeholders, and China-based Australian businesses’. This ‘is particularly timely given the historic China Australia Free Trade Agreement’ (among other things), her release said.
No further information was given about the Minister’s agenda for these China discussions. It may be that Australia’s Assistant Immigration Minister is, cap in hand, seeking Chinese approval for how the Australian government proposes to implement its FTA commitments on the IFAs in favour of Chinese 457 workers. The Australian Parliament will surely have a view about governments making Australian immigration laws in this way if it is presented with a fait accompli by the Minister when she returns.
Hopefully before the ALP National Conference the government does ‘come clean about the potential downside for Australian jobs’ in the China FTA, as the Opposition Leader has called for. If this was an honest government, it would admit two more downsides to its China FTA concessions that are fatal to its claims to be in Australia’s national interest.
First, the FTA 457 concessions give China increased scope to export some of its unemployment to Australia if things go bad in the Chinese economy, eg by pressuring Australian firms wanting Chinese market access or investment to take on Chinese workers over qualified Australians. By removing any legal obligation on employers to even look for Australian workers, the Abbott government is opening the door wide to this abuse of the 457 visa program.
Second, removing the ability of all future Australian governments to legislate in favour of Australian citizens and residents over Chinese citizens in the standard 457 visa program greatly increases the risk of future Australian job losses. It removes a vital policy tool Australia will need to manage future economic shocks including those arising from our increased exposure to China. On this ground alone it is reckless and irresponsible.
Bob Kinnaird is Research Associate with The Australian Population Research Institute and was National Research Director CFMEU National Office 2009-14.