ChAFTA: Union Campaign Misses The Point

The union campaign against the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) is a mixture of misinformation, confusion and xenophobia.

But it does hide an uncomfortable truth. Labour market protectionism encourages the exploitation of foreign workers. We’ll come to that shortly.

The ACTU argues that ChAFTA will “shut out locals from jobs”. They point to three controversial provisions.

The first is the elimination of labour market testing for Chinese workers in the 457 visa program. Labour market testing requires employers to advertise locally before they employ foreigners on in 457 visas. But the requirement has always been a tick-the-box waste of time. An independentreview last year found it was pointless and cumbersome. There’s no evidence that unemployed Australians in any way benefit from this regulatory hurdle.

Another controversy relates to skills requirements. The unions say ChAFTA means foreign tradies could come to Australia who do not meet Australian standards. But the skills requirements under ChAFTA are exactly the same as for most other countries we accept skilled workers from. ChAFTA just removes a discriminatory higher bar for Chinese workers. (The higher bar still applies to a small number of other developing countries)

The final controversy concerns major projects. A side memorandum to ChAFTA establishes a new type of labour agreement – “investor facilitation agreements” – that allow major infrastructure projects to bring in foreign workers.

But we already have similar labour agreements. The essentials of the law haven’t changed, as the Migration Council’s Henry Sherrell notes. All agreements have to be approved by the immigration minister. And major projects have to pay foreign workers Australian market rates. Claims that ChAFTA changes existing major project wage requirements are simply wrong.

The unions can get away with these fudges because migration law is extraordinarily complicated – a byzantine regulatory environment of quotas and controls. The Immigration Department offers dozens of different types of visas for different types of people. Each have their own criteria and conditions. The Migration Act is a behemoth: currently 1048 pages, not including supporting regulations.

There are lots of reasons for this complexity. But one big one comes from the unions, who want migration to be heavily controlled to protect Australian jobs. If we were more open to migration – if there was wider acceptance of the evidence that immigrants do not steal jobs – then these rigid and regulated visa schemes would not have to exist.

This is the political economy behind union stories of foreign workers being exploited in Australia.

To the extent that there is exploitation in Australian immigration, it is because employers are able to use restrictive visa conditions – demanded by unions to protect Australian workers – as a stick to wield against foreign visa holders.

For instance, on the weekend Fairfax papers and Four Corners uncovered what they say is widespread exploitation of 7/11 workers. No doubt the story has a way to run before we learn all the facts. But notice how many allegedly exploited 7/11 employees are working on student visas.

The visa conditions on one student “gave the franchisees leverage to threaten to go to the authorities to have his visa cancelled if he complained about his salary or working conditions.”

At least student visa holders might be able to find other work. Workers on 457 visas have just a single sponsor, with correspondingly greater leverage.

It is possible to be opposed to foreign workers from China and not be xenophobic. But you’d have to be blind to miss the undercurrent of xenophobia in the anti-ChAFTA campaign. Just as the union campaign against poles and wires privatisation in March this year leant heavily on anti-Chinese sentiment, so too does this month’s spectre of Chinese workers.

Our highly regulated migration system is better than none at all. Immigration is the most powerful anti-poverty tool we have. People who migrate from poor countries to rich countries dramatically improve their wellbeing and those of their families.

We ought to be accepting more foreign workers. And we ought to be reducing the visa restrictions that make them vulnerable to exploitation.

Because when we talk about immigration policy we need to keep the focus on the immigrants themselves – and why they would want to come to Australian in the first place.

When unions campaign for Aussie jobs – when they campaign for crackdowns on visa categories, for more rules on who cannot work in Australia, for limiting foreign workers on projects – they are campaigning not against business or “capital” but against people who are less well-off than they and who were born in countries poor than ours.

International solidarity, it seems, only goes so far.