Australia needs to fling open the door to less skilled workers who are needed to prop up the country’s mining boom, it is claimed.
While there has been much talk about recruiting overseas workers for skilled jobs, there are many other positions that cannot be filled, according to employers. They say they are struggling to find enough workers for less skilled work such as cleaning and driving.
In some areas a mine supervisor can earn in excess of $200,000, a truck driver’s salary can be six figures and a construction worker can make over $150,000, more than a doctor or lawyer.
Then there are the camps created for the workers. These create hundreds of more lowly jobs such as cleaners, drivers and cooks but even they can earn $100,000 a year.
The mining and resources industry, including oil and gas, has roughly $400 billion in new projects on the drawing board in Australia and will need another roughly 70,000 workers over the next five years alone, according to government estimates.
The construction industry is projected to need another 196,000 workers over the same period. Many of them are associated with new mining and energy projects.
Some struggling employers believe Australia is taking too measured an approach in terms of recruiting overseas workers.
Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart is one who believes strongly it is time for a rethink. ‘Australia needs guest workers, ‘said Rinehart, chairman of Hancock Prospecting Pty Ltd, the company that pioneered the country’s iron ore industry in the 1950s and 1960s.
She told Reuters that Australia not only needs highly skilled migrant workers but also unskilled, short-term guest workers for the costly, labour intensive construction phase of development.
‘Guest workers would benefit from jobs in Australia, increasing their skills and enabling them to provide for their own family’s needs, so it is humanitarian assistance for them; in short, a win-win,’ she said.
Rinehart likens her idea to the use of seasonal workers in the farm sector to pick fruit when the work dries up, the workers go home. Her suggestion though is that Australia should follow Singapore’s economic model has angered trade unions. In Singapore, unskilled foreign workers such as labourers and domestic servants are paid less than $1,465 a month and cannot permanently resettle.
Paul Howes, head of the Australian Workers Union, is against the idea. ‘We have told the government that we cannot stand by and allow what is essentially the trafficking of cheap labour from Asia into the remote northwest of Western Australia,’ he said.
The issue of guest workers is explosive because it implies below market wages and challenges the national ideal of an egalitarian state. The supporters of guest worker schemes argue though that fair wages are enshrined in industry labour agreements and there is a real benefit to employers in terms of recruiting reliable, committed workers.
Large employers complain about the difficulty in both finding and keeping good workers. Mining contractor Leighton Holdings said it turns over more than a quarter of its workforce every year as staff shop for every higher wages. ‘They are very much motivated by someone having different conditions. The food’s better in the camp maybe, they serve different beer in the kitchen. I’ve got no idea. But it’s a real challenge for us. We can’t have a business where there’s that much movement of people. It’s enormously challenging,’ Leighton Chief Executive David Stewart told a business lunch in Melbourne.
Australia’s largest energy firm, Woodside Petroleum Ltd, has partly blamed labour shortages for delays to its $14.9 billion Pluto liquefied natural gas project, now nearing completion near Karratha.