Is the China FTA in the national interest ?

12 August 2015

Tony Abbott has a reputation for breaking promises - and safeguards in Australia's temporary migration system may be set to become the latest.
Last year, Abbott said the Government would retain labour market testing the requirement that employers show they cannot find suitable local workers before they use temporary migrants.
But when the government unveiled its free trade agreement with China, it became clear that this undertaking was dispensable.
Labor supports greater economic engagement with China and the other rising economies of Asia.
Boosting trade abroad boosts growth, jobs and living standards at home.
The point of freeing up trade is to improve local job opportunities not to constrain them.
With unemployment stuck at six per cent or higher for the last 12 months, the need to boost local employment opportunities is pressing.
That is why Labor will seek to maintain critical safeguards in response to the labour movement provisions in the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. The existing temporary migration system allows employers to sponsor overseas workers on 457 visas where there are shortages of skilled local workers.
It does this through legislative requirements under the Migration Act for labour market testing, so that employers must show they have not been able to find local workers to fill positions before they sponsor workers on 457 visas. Employers can meet this requirement by showing the Immigration Department that they have advertised jobs locally.
But the free-trade agreement with China will erode this provision. Chapter 10 of the agreement, which deals with Movement of Natural Persons, provides that Australia will not impose labour market testing for certain categories of Chinese temporary migrants.
"Neither party shall require labour market testing, economic needs testing, or other procedures of similar effect as a condition for temporary entry."
This removes labour market testing for contractors, installers and servicers. And the agreement defines these categories so broadly that they will include a wide range of occupations.
The agreement also includes a Memorandum of Understanding on projects worth $150 million or more which are funded by Chinese investment, committing the Australian Government to negotiating special migration arrangements for these projects.
These "Investment Facilitation Arrangements" will include an umbrella deal negotiated between the government and project proponents. Under the MOU no labour market testing will be required for these deals.
Sitting under the umbrella deals will be labour agreements with employers allowing the use of 457 workers on these projects. The memorandum of understandingsays only that labour market testing may be required in these agreements watering down what is currently a legislated requirement.
The upshot is that despite his promise to retain labour market testing, Abbott has removed it for contractors and made it an optional extra for $150 million-plus infrastructure projects.
This will have significant implications for job opportunities for local workers.
It will also have significant implications for Australian businesses, who will not face a level playing field with their Chinese competitors on major projects.
A final concern is that under the proposed free-trade agreement, the government has agreed to remove mandatory skills assessments as part of the immigration process for Chinese electricians.
The government's defence is that electricians will still have to obtain occupational licences from state and territory regulators.
But unions and employers are concerned about whether there will be adequate enforcement of this requirement and the safety risks of unlicensed electrical work.
For something as important as the safety of electrical work, the Government must demonstrate that its removal of mandatory skills assessments will not put people at risk.
Rather than dismissing community concerns about these aspects of the deal with China, the Abbott government needs to explain why it has failed to support Australian jobs.
This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday, 12 August 2015.