What the reopening of 457 visa loopholes mean for Curtis Island LNG workers [opinion]

This morning’s revelation that the Abbott Government “quietly” reopened a visa loophole on February 14 is extremely disconcerting, given the plans Bechtel have to greatly increase the number of 457 workers on Curtis Island.

A letter leaked on Facebook yesterday showed Bechtel’s intention to start another 120 to 150 international fitters and welders on the LNG construction sites.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that a loophole, closed by the Labor Government last year, will again allow approved 457 employers such as Bechtel to hire an unlimited number of foreign workers under temporary working visas.

Despite the approvals process that should limit the number of 457 workers an employer may hire, the loophole means employers will not be scrutinised or penalised if they hire more than the approved number of foreign staff.

Bechtel claimed it was no longer able to supply “adequately qualified and experienced mechanical trade personnel”, yet there is a large community of tradespeople in Gladstone and elsewhere in Australia who have, on social media, vocalised their disappointment with the hiring processes employed by Bechtel, citing a lack of communication after applications have been made, and rejection of applicants with ample experience and suitable qualifications.

The claims made by Bechtel beggar the question: If there is a shortage of workers in Australia, then why are so many voicing their dissatisfaction with hiring policies, claiming they have not even been given a chance by the HR department in Gladstone?

There is a question of the numbers of people with suitable qualifications who have been turned away, a question only Bechtel HR can answer with exact figures about the ratio of successful to unsuccessful applications in given trades.

Late last year Curtis Island suffered an exodus of workers when jobs advertising 3/1 weekly rosters went on offer in the Surat Basin.

With EBA negations underway last year, many workers on site wanted to pursue Bechtel for a change to the roster, from 4/1 to 3/1, which when presented by the unions was flatly refused.

A four week on, one week off roster is notorious among the FIFO community, as well as medical professionals who deal with FIFO workers, for causing severe depression in individuals as well family dysfunction.

The four week duration also increases the chances that a worker will be injured, as worker fatigue increases throughout the stint.

The unions continue to cry foul about the deunionisation of labour forces, and this is certainly an attractive conspiracy theory.

I have personally witnessed the introduction of additional 457 labour to tip the balance of power in a vote during EBA negotiations, while working for a different company in Dalby several years ago. The practice is not as far-fetched as some might think, especially in a situation where 457 workers make up nearly half of the workforce under a given contract.

It may well be the case that Bechtel avoids hiring local, unionised labour in favour of FIFO and 457 workers, and this would probably not be a desirable explanation for Bechtel, as it would represent and confirm unscrupulous business practices. However it would require a great deal of malice and aforethought, and there is a more realistic explanation for the need to hire overseas workers.

One of the advantage s of 457 workers is that their retention numbers are high. Workers from foreign countries cannot simply leave a job in Australia to find other work. Usually they come from countries with low pay, poor working conditions, or high unemployment. Bechtel’s admission that attempts are being made to source workers in Ireland points to this motivation.

In addition, a 457 worker cannot change jobs within Australia, but must stay with the company that hired them to come here.

Given the sheer volume of reports (on Facebook) made by qualified people claiming their applications have been rejected, or simply unanswered, combined with the outflow of workers from Curtis Island to jobs with better working conditions, conditions more amenable to maintaining good mental health and family life at home, does the need to hire international workers stem from an unwillingness on the part of Bechtel management to try other strategies (such as answering the call to reduce the weekly working roster to a 3/1 ratio) to retain quality workers on Curtis Island?

Is it unwillingness, or simply mismanagement?

When I joined the Bechtel worforce at QCLNG last year, I was quickly shocked at the negative attitudes and low morale amongst workers on the island, but not nearly as shocked as I was to learn how badly mismanaged workflow was within and between different crews.

It was not uncommon to see groups of workers with little or nothing to do because other workfronts were interfering with their ability to continue work, workers simply standing around, or hiding in welding humpys, engaging in a practice commonly referred to on the island as “f*%king the dog”.

It was also surprising to see, as a member of the piping crew, that pipe which we installed would later have to be removed for painting or repairs to facing, causing double and triple handling, and necessitating the need for rework.

When I talked to workers about whether this was ordinary practice in the LNG construction industry, I was often told that the job was simply poorly managed by inexperienced supervisors, supervisors who, by and large, had no prior experience in the trades they managed.

This is not to say that all supervision on the island were inept: I worked under some excellent supervisors and leading hands on QCLNG, workers who were very experienced pipefitters and riggers, who had the full support of their crew members.

Ask any seasoned construction worker about the qualities they expect in a good supervisor, and they will tell you they ought to exhibit a level of experience in the trades they supervise, that is above and beyond the experience of the tradesmen in their crew.

Bechtel claims that they will have the QCLNG plant commissioned and producing purified, liquefied coal seam gas by the year’s end, but many experienced gas industry workers on the island believe this is an optimistic projection at best.

Perhaps Bechtel ought to consider other strategies for staff retention and improvement of morale, to give workers the drive to work hard and take pride in the job, to look at the management practices employed at the workfront to ensure that man hours are not wasted by the thousands each week.

There are many ways to improve the job before throwing hands in the air and saying you’ve exhausted the labour market and need to exploit foreign labour markets (to the detriment of Australian citizens).

Of course, the decision has been made, and as such is final, but It will be interesting to see if Bechtel chooses to abide by their approved allocation of 457 visas, or if they choose to bypass the red tape, so thoughtfully cut away by the Abbott government, and exploit the newest of Australia’s labour immigration loopholes.

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