An ALP move to back Liberal free trade agreements has outraged the ACTU, warning of a spike in foreign worker visas, writes William Olson.
AUSTRALIAN COUNCIL OF TRADE UNIONS (ACTU) President Michele O’Neil has lashed out at the Labor Party and, specifically, Labor leader Anthony Albanese — angry that the ALP has apparently ignored its working-class base and its relationship with the union movement over ALP support for a trio of free trade agreements.
After a special caucus meeting last Thursday, Labor’s support for the Morrison Government’s FTAs between Australian interests and those in Hong Kong and Indonesia, in addition to a prior FTA with Peru, remains subject to negotiations on a range of labour market concessions, which the ALP advocated in return for their support.
A debate and vote in Parliament on the FTAs is expected to occur this week.
However, the ACTU warns that risk of producing an influx of foreign worker visas over developing jobs for homegrown youth looms ahead as a possible consequence for Australia, should the FTAs pass as expected.
After the ACTU’s lobbying efforts of Labor and crossbench MPs in the last several weeks to block the FTAs had failed, O’Neil said:
The decision by the ALP to side with the Government is an abandonment both of their own platform and of their responsibility to stand up for fair trade deals, which deliver jobs for local workers, that protect Australia’s public services, sovereignty and visa workers from exploitation and that ensure international labour standards in the countries we trade with.
They’ve made a mistake that will not be forgotten by Australian workers.
Albanese, meanwhile, defends the ALP’s decision to back the FTAs, remaining adamant not to sacrifice Australian jobs in the process.
“Our priority is jobs,” Albanese said last Friday while on a doorstop interview session in suburban Melbourne.
Let’s be very clear here. With regard to the Indonesian Agreement, what is happening is that in return for 2% of goods and services coming to Australia being made free of tariffs, 25% going the other way will be made free of tariffs. In addition to that, though, we have sought assurances about Australian jobs, about making sure that in terms of labour market testing, that that occurs in an appropriate way.
We’ve also sought assurances that privatisation will not be affected in any way in terms of being made necessary, or required, or indeed even encouraged as a result of these agreements. We’re confident that those changes can be made.
The ACTU had discovered in its own studies and polling that 75-80% of voters in key electorate seats of Bass (Tasmania), Brand (Western Australia), Corio (Victoria), Hunter (New South Wales) and Rankin (Queensland) oppose recent free trade agreement bills — results which justify their fears over the visas-over-local-development debate.
O’Neil and the ACTU cite that while the 1.4 million people in Australia currently on working visas mark a decade-long high in that area, statistics surrounding youth unemployment also mark a grave concern for those in key regions.
Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton have approved far too many temporary work visas, there are currently 1.4 million people with temporary visas with work rights.
At the same time, we have record low wage growth and high youth unemployment in regional areas.
Despite data suggesting that the awarding of temporary visas for overseas workers – groups often characterised as overseas travellers, backpackers and recent onshore arrivals – currently exists on a downward trend over the last six years of Federal LNP government, the figures for youth unemployment nationally and, in particular, regions remain quite daunting in the face of those statistics and in the context of the Morrison Government’s FTAs.
The Brotherhood of St Laurence, a national anti-poverty charity and advocacy group, reported in March that the national rate of youth unemployment at 11.2% more than doubles the general national average of 5%. The group also noted that the demographic of 15-to-24-year-olds possess a rate of unemployment nearly three times that of those aged over 25.
The report explicitly stated:
‘Across Australia, this translates to a quarter of a million young people who are still unemployed.’
In the BSL’s report, which interprets data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, many communities have incurred youth unemployment figures of 15% or greater, including regional areas such as Bendigo and Shepparton in Victoria, the Wheat Belt region of Western Australia and outback Queensland topping the list.
“Young people come out of education and training with high hopes and aspirations for independence. It’s devastating that despite 28 years of continuous economic growth, too many young Australians are locked out of the prosperity dividend.”
O’Neil remains concerned about the effects the FTAs will have on the Australian economy as well as that of the long-term future of an Australian workforce:
Now they have signed deals with Indonesia, Peru and Hong Kong that will allow even more short-term work visas, further drive down wages and increase exploitation.
The Indonesian deal includes 1,500 people coming in on training visas while we have a crisis in youth unemployment, close to a halving in our apprenticeship and training numbers and the decimation of TAFE.
Scott Morrison has sold out Australian workers. The Liberals want to keep wages low. He always puts the demands of big business before Australians.
While O’Neil views that the impact on jobs in regional communities where youth unemployment already exists at crisis points could get even worse if the FTAs pass in Parliament in their current legislative states, Simon Birmingham, the Government’s Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, also cited the Joint Standing Committee on Trade (JSCOT) findings in backing the prospective passage of the Hong Kong and Indonesia FTAs.
Birmingham believes that the FTAs will also serve as a spike to the business interests of Australian farmers and related industries:
With Indonesia being one the fastest growing economies in the world, this agreement would further strengthen our economic ties and provide a major boost for Australian farmers — with producers of grains, beef, dairy and horticulture and many other products all set to benefit from lower tariffs and improved access to Indonesian markets.
While making the passing remark of “creating more Australian jobs”, Birmingham would not be committed as to how many jobs would be required to carry out the domestic end of the FTAs, nor of the ratios of local jobs versus overseas visas needed for those projects.
If the Hong Kong and Indonesia FTAs get ratified as expected, it will be interesting to see what direction the Morrison Government goes with to influence the filling of job vacancies, whether youth unemployment decreases or the numbers of visas to overseas workers increases.
Whereas on paper it would seem which path would pose a better solution to Australia’s long-term interests – that of the former – it exists as a dichotomy which seems endlessly debated and not easily erased.
But if the latter scenario occurs, the ALP’s move to back the FTAs could justify the perception of being a point of contention between the long-held alliance between it and the ACTU. It is a risk that could backfire for the ALP in the end at the expense of its relationship with the unions.
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