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Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud

David Littleproud's Aus4skills Vietnam program rubs salt in the wounds of TAFE budget cuts — but for whose benefit? Belinda Jones reports.

FIRST-TERM POLITICIAN, David Littleproud, Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, has inherited a portfolio of chaos.

From the Murray Darling debacle to the live export scandal, the Minister has been dodging the many political potholes he has inherited.

Now, he has dug another new $146 million political pothole for himself and many in the rural and training sectors are not happy.

Last week Littleproud jetted off to Vietnam to launch Australia’s Managing Abattoir, Training and Exchange of Skills (MATES) Program, part of the $146 million five-year Aus4skills Vietnam Program that's an initiative by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

In his press release, Littleproud stated:

'Vietnam is a significant live cattle export market worth $243 million in 2016/17.'

One could be forgiven for thinking that the Vissan abattoir is a small-time, developing industry. Nothing could be further from the truth. Vissan is a very well-established market leader with a large workforce well-trained in the safe handling of food products for domestic and export markets.

The current financial position of Vissan was detailed in the company’s financial report released at its shareholders' meeting this month — their yearly revenue currently sits at VND$4.6 trillion (AU$264.76 million), an 18% increase from last year.

Vissan’s already skilled workforce currently prepares meat in well-equipped abattoirs for the domestics markets and for export to North America, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Germany, Russia, Hong Kong, Japan, Cambodia and Australia.

Vissan’s vision for the future includes increasing its supply between 15 and 20% this year.

In March 2016, Vissan made its initial public offering when it listed on the Ho Chi Minh Stock Exchange.

Reuters reported:

State-run Vissan Co, Vietnam’s leading foodstuff processor raised 906.84 billion dong (AU$53.1 million) in an initial public offering on Monday for 14% of its shares, beating its own projection. Vissan sold all 11.33 million shares on offer at an average price of 80,053 dong (AU$4.66) per share, compared with a starting price of 17,000 dong set by the firm, the Ho Chi Minh Stock Exchange said in a statement.

Australia’s DFAT Vietnam Aid Investment Plan (AIP) states that Australia’s aid is being used to assist the development of the private sector rather than ‘inefficient state-owned enterprises’. But state-run Vissan is the location of the MATES program.

The AIP also states that Australia’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) will 'help level the playing field', which is somewhat of a contradiction, given the size and financial position of the successful, well-established, state-run market leader, Vissan.

It would appear Australia’s well-meaning ODA is being misdirected and not meeting DFAT’s objectives of assisting the private sector and levelling the playing field.

In a statement from the Australian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU), the frustration of Australian industry workers was vented:

Australian meat workers support their local communities and contribute to the growth of the nation by paying their fair share of tax — while massive agricultural mega-corporations pay nothing,” said AMIEU Newcastle & Northern NSW Secretary Grant Courtney.

It is an insult to these hard-working Australians to take their tax money and use it in a way that undermines their entire livelihood.

How can Mr Littleproud justify spending $146 million in training up Vietnamese meat workers when his government is presiding over the most catastrophic drop in apprenticeship and training positions in decades?

The MATES program will be managed by Coffey, a Tetra Tech company. Tetra Tech Coffey was one of the 732 companies listed by the Australian Tax Office that paid no tax in the 2015-16 financial year.

Coffey will oversee the delivery of skills training to 40-60 participants who will complete a Certificate II in Meat Processing (Abattoirs) onsite at Vissan over six months. The same course in Australia takes one year to complete and costs approximately $1,400.

Despite our ODA programs promoting "women’s economic empowerment", Vissan’s current employment notices are advertising for hundreds of manufacturing and sales staff, some applicants will be paid as little as VND$20,000 (AU$1.13) per day. Other employment notices request only staff 18 to 35. Many positions are only for males and "caring staff" applicants need only apply if they have "good looks".

The MATES Program rubs salt into the wounds of many TAFE students who have missed out on study opportunities here in Australia due to funding cuts to TAFE Australia-wide. ABC reported in October 2017:

'There are calls for urgent Government intervention to stop the critical decline of the TAFE system, which is leaving thousands of young people with little opportunity for training and jobs.'

TAFE has been the subject of funding cuts over successive years, as the ABC report goes on to say:

New South Wales lost 35% of its TAFE workforce between 2010 and 2016.

Victoria’s TAFE workforce declined 44%, Queensland’s by 25% and South Australia lost 17% of its TAFE workforce in recent years.

In August 2016, the Vietnamese Government – the same Government that runs Vissan – caused a diplomatic uproar when they banned Vietnam Veteran’s Day Commemorations at the Long Tan Cross site, effectively leaving 3,500 Australians who had travelled to Vietnam for the event stranded. A decision not in the spirit of mateship.

Australians are a generous mob – generous to a fault it would appear – and we are happy to help Vietnam’s poor. However, that aid is unsustainable if we neglect to upskill our Australian workforce that pays the tax that funds aid to developing countries. It is imperative that this much-needed aid goes to its target demographic to "level the playing field", not to state-run companies or the top end of town.

Minister Littleproud and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Julie Bishop both have a responsibility to ensure that Australia’s ODA is spent in the areas where it is intended — to help those who need it most and that the spirit of mateship that exists between Vietnam and Australia is reciprocal.

You can follow Belinda Jones on Twitter @belindajones68.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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