Australian unions’ ‘xenophobic’ campaign against foreign workers

by Hilda Wayne in Perth, Western Australia

Tommy Mambu

Australian union’s fight for ‘Aussie jobs’ and campaign against skilled migration and overseas 457 workers has created what has been termed as xenophobia as it is not the foreign workers but the resources companies who are at the forefront of employing these workers with much needed skills and experience.

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard added to the “crackdown” on foreign workers saying that she would “fight to stop foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back.”

However this view is not shared by many within the resources industry and business leaders in Australia.

Former Queensland treasurer and current Nimrod Resources chairman Keith DeLacy said in a recent media report that the protests against foreign workers will do more harm than good to the Australian economy.

“There never seems to be any balance. It just seems to come across as an anti-business agenda and no doubt playing to the Labor base in a campaign context. I just wonder if anybody in Canberra understands the damage this does to confidence, to investment and ultimately to economic growth and job creation and incomes,” Mr. DeLacy told The Australian.

Following a recent union attack on Papua New Guinean mine workers in Queensland, Associate Professor Colin Filer, from the Australian National University says it is actually Papua New Guineans who loose more in this debate on foreign workers and not Australians.

“It seems a bit ironic, given that Australian Fly-In-Fly-Out (FIFO) workers occupy a lot more FIFO jobs in the PNG resource sector than do PNG FIFO workers down here in Australia. What’s more they get paid 2-3 times as much as their national counterparts with same qualifications,” Professor Filer said.

According to official state figures, Western Australia, dubbed Australia’s ‘golden state’ contributed 46 percent ($114 billion) of Australia’s merchandise exports in 2012, which is higher than New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland combined. WA’s economy was valued at $239 billion in 2011-2012. This was above its annual average growth of 4.6 percent over the past five years.

In 2010-2011 permanent migrants and temporary migrants on 457 visas generated a total of $355 million ($240 million came from 457 temporary visa holders and $115 million from permanent migration) net fiscal contribution to WA’s economy in their first year of settlement.

While the level of tirade against foreign workers continues, WA will be taking an opposite direction, welcoming more foreign workers to continue its economic success in Australia. It is in this state that Papua New Guineans are moving into at a steady rate.

“Through this decade we expect liquefied natural gas production to treble and we expect iron ore production to double. There is probably the need for another 100,000 people to come across into Western Australia and take up jobs,” said WA Premier Colin Barnett, during a skills conference in Perth late last year.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott also said foreign workers were making a ‘valuable contribution’ to Australia’s economy.

Skills and disciplines currently in high demand are civil, petroleum, electrical and mining engineers, process engineers, chemical engineers, geologists, metallurgists, fitters and surveyors.

Industry sources have said while there is training of apprentices, trainees and graduates in needed roles in Australia, it is the companies who would prefer experienced and skilled people to take up jobs with major projects thus the need to source foreign workers.

An industry research carried out by Edith Cowan University and Australian Mines and Metals Association in WA found that although jobs were available in WA, locals interstate were reluctant in moving to WA to take up jobs citing higher cost of living and isolation from family as a disadvantage.

According to the study: “While the evidence from the study indicates the industry seeks to source labour within Australia, the participant response also emphasise that it is the shortage of qualified and experienced professionals locally that has instigated the investment in initiatives to employ workers on 457 visas.”

“There was some evidence to suggest that workers with these skills the resource sector required resided in the East Coast. However, participants in this study indicated that in many cases they encountered reluctance from prospective Australian recruits about relocating to WA. The respondents indicated that in many cases such workers also appeared to have unrealistic expectations about prospective earnings they anticipated would be well above their previous rates. These expectations often make them an uncompetitive recruitment option,” stated the report.

“When workers on 457 visas are employed within Australia, they transfer their knowledge, skills and cultural differences as well as contributing directly to the economy through spending money on general living expenses and by paying taxes. Workers in the resources sector pay a higher rate of tax than the average Australian due to their higher salaries. Migrant workers are subject to this high rate of taxation without the offsets afforded to internal Australian taxpayers and appear to contribute an additional 8.5 percent to taxation.”

Although Papua New Guineans add a small number of foreign workers living and working in WA, they total the number of foreign workers who contribute to Australia’s economy through paying taxes and sharing of skills and knowledge.

PNG professionals have their say

Papua New Guineans who have been part of this skilled migration to Australia say the union campaign against foreign workers is not actually true and that it is not the foreign workers who are responsible for any job losses at all if any. They also added that Australia should view the steady influx of skilled foreign workers to Australia especially from a developing country such as PNG as a loss for PNG’s own development when Australia gains from it best human resources economically.

After 20 years working as a specialist skills tradesman in Bougainville Copper Mine, Ok Tedi and Pogera respectively, James Jacob decided it was time to move and Australia gave him that opportunity.

“We are training the next generation of skilled apprentices here in Australia now. Training of new graduates and apprentices is part of our job here. If there is anyone who doubts our ability, they should visit the mine sites we work in and see what we are doing. I have more than 20 years of work experience and I am passing that on to an apprentice now,” Mr Jacob said.

He said although he feels he can do more in PNG, Australia offered better working conditions and needed skills and experiences which is why he decided to move.

“I know there is a lot of negative things being said about foreign workers here in Australia but there is a big difference between training a lot of apprentices and trades people in the classroom or lecture rooms and actually doing the job on the fields,” Mr. Jacob said, who is now a permanent resident of Australia.

Mr. Soliey Didiwik another mine worker in WA said the decision to employ foreign workers was up to every employer and that it was unfair that unions were against foreign workers in Australia.

“It is up to every employer in the resources sector to decide what is best for their company in the long term. They can’t just get people who have no experience. It will be risky when employers put in inexperienced people because safety is very important. Companies need to make money at the end of the day and not worry about workplace deaths or accidents which slow down progress and development,” said Mr. Didiwik, who has 12 years working in PNG and now a permanent resident of Australia.

He said working conditions and experiences Papua New Guineans had in their own country prepared them well for job opportunities overseas adding that with the challenging working conditions in PNG, it was easier for them to work in Australia.

Another senior mining professional who requested anonymity and held managerial roles in Queensland says the decision to move away from home (PNG) is not easy to make. He said Papua New Guineans would very much like to remain and work to pay taxes and contribute to PNG’s own development yet better opportunities offered elsewhere continues to influences their choices.

“Here (in Australia) or anywhere else, we (Papua New Guineans) have earned the respect of company heads, employers and even policy makers. Our advice, knowledge and skills are sought after. We can give back and help our own country develop too not in terms of how much we can give our individual families and community back home through remittances, but in policy making and long term developments for the nation just like what we are doing now in Australia, paying our taxes and contributing our skills and knowledge,” he said.

He added that as a foreign worker here in Australia it is contradicting how the unions have been so vocal about Australians losing their jobs when foreign workers contribute so much in terms of training of locals and paying taxes.

“As soon as we arrive in Australia we start work and pay our taxes. One of our visa requirements is to train Australians and that is what we do,” says Peter Laka, a mine geologist.

“We (migrant workers) are not here to take anyone’s job. We are here at the request of the companies and the approval of the government. We are here based on merits with the qualifications backed by years of hard earned experience.  PNG’s mines, equipment and mining systems are the best and some of the biggest in the world.

“Our mines are located in some of the most rugged terrains in the world and are no match in size and production output to the small sand pit operations here in Australia. To say we have what it takes to be here is an understatement. We are the best amongst the best and that is what we are giving to the Australian economy,” said Mr. Laka.

A total of 30 skilled and professional Papua New Guineans were interviewed and the responses were that, their migration to Australia was actually a loss for their own developing country. While most say they have cultural and family obligations to send money home, they would rather work and pay taxes in their own country if it wasn’t for challenging working conditions faced at home.

Turning PNG’s brain drain into its success

Papua New Guinean and senior Lecturer at University of Western Sydney, Dr. Ben Imbun says if Papua New Guineans satisfied with where they are in their career and also contributing in whatever way they can back in their country, they should maintain that.

“My take on the issue of extractive workers returning to PNG is that since they are on a more level playing field, earning the same set wages with other workers and contributing meaningfully to development back home, they might as well stay put and excel in what they are currently doing.

“Their miss in PNG is an opportunity for another local worker. Unless the inherent deficiencies in the employment arrangements are rectified, a lot of them may probably prefer staying where they are. Working in an extractive industry is not similar to working in a government bureaucracy where bureaucrats directly influence development in PNG or elsewhere. The extractive industry is capital intensive and requires less of a workforce. So I do not see how the PNG extractive workers would directly influence development of the country, unless indirectly through their proceeds of the wages and being part of the workforce in the country,” Dr. Imbun said.

James Taie, a civil engineer from Chimbu Province, who has worked for nine years in Australia, says he is willing to give back however there are challenges that still face PNG’s development in rewarding people fairly.

“I am willing to render my services if I can get paid for it on the same terms and condition as I am being recognised here in Australia. My profession is a rarity in PNG and also is demanding in Australia or overseas for that matter. So I think that I should be compensated fairly if I have to be engaged back in PNG competitively,” said Mr. Taie, who resides in Western Australia.

Mr. Taie, however does not view living and working in Australia meant isolation from PNG thus giving back to his community through philanthropic work. He has helped work with projects initiated at the provincial level such as the designing of a mini hydro for Gembolg district in Chimbu, and done inspection and maintenance strategy for rural bridges in his constituency.

“I will continue to contribute my skills and knowledge in these projects which I know will affect the lives of my people for the better. Based on my assessments and reports, recommendations will be presented to the Chimbu provincial government to plan and budget for periodic maintenance as appropriate strategically on all those bridges,” Mr. Taie said.

Another Papua New Guinean, John Muka said PNG should now look at making use of PNG’s own international exposure through its citizens working overseas. He says it should not be viewed as a brain drain but a ‘success in disguise’ for PNG.

Mr. Muka says overseas exposure is critically important for the benefit of the individuals and their families but more so for PNG if this is managed properly.

“One thing overseas exposure does is that it builds individual confidence at international level. We are a third world country and this exposure is needed. The benefit of that is that more Papua New Guineans have a better view of the world at someone else’s cost not our government.

“When these people are hired back into the country, they can confidently manage work in various fields of expertise which is currently occupied by expatriates. They can also contribute meaningfully in PNG’s development, pay taxes and enhance cash flow within the community as we spend a good fortune of what we earn back in the communities we come from,” said Mr. Muka, who works as a business improvement specialist for a mining company in Perth.

He said the best way to address this is for the government to come up with a manpower management and development strategy. This strategy he suggested will look at carrying out a baseline analysis (both internal and external) to establish PNG’s capacity in key management and technical Areas.

Mr. Muka stressed that such a strategy will give the government a better view of where PNG’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities are.

“The government of PNG can then strategise to take full advantage and control of the resources and wealth already generated and to be generated in the country. This would mean the government would knowingly support the brain-drain but only on needs basis in areas where there are gaps and also for long the long term sustainability of its best human resources,” Mr. Muka said.

“ Those that are already overseas and acquiring the exposure, the government just needs to monitor them and take them on board one by one as they see fit on needs basis. Eventually over time, PNG can proudly say it is a totally Independent Nation standing on its own two feet and not moved by outside influence,” he said.

Mr. Muka added that it was important the government also review PNG’s labour laws and change the minimum wage to balance National Workers Terms and Conditions to be competitive with international market rates.

“Otherwise it will be difficult to attract and retain the best local skills and talents. The government must also have a confidential monitoring system in place where the government chaired by the Prime Minister should know where elite Papua New Guineans are around the world. This I’m referring to elites who are in the top influential positions both in private and government.

“In line with that they must have a robust training and succession plans in place and working to ensure there is always continued sustainability,” Mr. Muka said.