Explosive revelations of seven Chinese workers coming to our shores under the China Australia Free Trade Agreement was a big slap in the face for the Turnbull Government.
In 2015 anyone who dared criticise the Agreement was labelled ‘xenophobic’ or ‘racist’. A detailed report written by yours truly exposing the Agreement was dismissed out of hand by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Trade Minister Andrew Robb, even if they admitted to never having read it. But now we have the proof we need to expose the flaws in the Agreement that the Government tried so desperately to conceal.
The Agreement opened up more routes for Chinese workers to come to Australia, failed to ensure that jobs would first be offered to Australians and created a system whereby non-compliance with our minimum wages and conditions would become the norm.
Each of these problems was exposed in this weekend’s revelations. To recap, the Turnbull Government issued subclass 400 visas to seven Chinese workers to install machinery. These workers took Australian jobs, were underpaid and their lives were put in danger because of their lack of knowledge of Australian workplace safety law.
How were Australian jobs taken by these seven Chinese workers? These workers were performing welding and related tasks for which there are many Australian workers available.
This was not a highly specialised job but one which the Australians working alongside them said they could do.
However, the Turnbull Government has prevented Australia from doing anything about it when our jobs are taken in this way. The Agreement prevents labour market testing, which is the best way of ensuring that a job is first offered to local workers before it goes to an overseas worker.
Turning to the second point, how were the Chinese workers vastly underpaid? An Australian worker performing these tasks would have received an hourly rate of $42 but these Chinese workers were paid $75 a day. The pay was deposited directly into their bank accounts in China. No pay slips were given, they did not receive penalty rates and of course superannuation was never on the cards.
The Turnbull Government’s response is that the Agreement doesn’t allow for Chinese workers to be paid less than their Australian counterparts.
And yes, this is what the text of the Agreement says. But the truth is the Agreement opened many more migration pathways for Chinese workers and created a reality that when they were exploited no-one would ever find out. This is especially true when wages are being deposited into Chinese bank accounts.
We simply don’t have the enforcement resources to police this. The Fair Work Ombudsman has 300 inspectors for 11 million workers, one tenth of which are visa holders. It’s a drop in the ocean and the Government knows it.
The third issue is that these Chinese workers repeatedly flouted Australian safety laws. Their lives were in danger, with one witness referring to the use of a thin piece of nylon as harness. Yet these workers all had safety certificates given to them by an Australian company allowing them to do this work.
The men were forced to return to China after allegedly being caught out not complying with Australian workplace safety law.
This is the first of many stories that will emerge over the years ahead. With Australia’s temporary labour migration programme labelled “a national disgrace” by a recent Senate inquiry, the China Australia Free Trade Agreement heightens the problem because of the ease with which Australia’s workplace law can be circumvented via this Agreement because of a lack of oversight and enforcement.
You will have heard of rorts with the 457 visa, international students and backpackers but under the Agreement the subclass 400 visa is the new frontier. It allows Chinese workers to come into Australia with no mandatory skills testing for short-term jobs as installers of machinery.
All an employer has to do is attest to the fact there is no local worker that can do the job. There is no independent verification of this fact. Under the subclass 400 visa there is no monitoring of the wages and conditions that are received by the overseas worker.
As a small country, Australia depends on labour migration and there are areas in which labour shortages are acute. But when we invite overseas workers into our country, be they from China or elsewhere, we have an ethical responsibility to ensure that they are treated fairly.