The new Free Trade Agreement with China has raised fears of for mining safety standards, in light of new terms which will allow Chinese mine owners to bring in their own Chinese workers on temporary work visas.
Australian Mining Association chairman George Edwards told SBS he feared Chinese workers were used to lower safety standards, which would make it difficult for them to operate in an environment with higher standards.
Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy CEO Michael Catchpole said workers’ skill levels should be of the standard expected in Australia.
“As far as the FTA is concerned, we would want to ensure that if miners are brought in at a technical, operational or professional level that they have the required skills and training, and that they work within the same health and safety conditions that we expect in all Australian operations,” he said.
However, Catchpole also expressed his concern about the impact of bringing in temporary workers in a period of rising levels of mining industry unemployment.
“Mining professionals in Australia are experiencing a level of unemployment that really we haven't seen in more than a decade,” he said.
Catchpole indicated unemployment among geologists and mining engineers is more than double the national figure of 6.2 per cent.
Earlier this year it was found the unemployment level among geologists was 14.8 per cent, and in Western Australia that rate soared as high as 19.6 per cent.
Last week the WA Resources Outlook forecast a 20 per cent drop in the requirement for mining labour in the state over the next six years.
“Any moves that could further exacerbate unemployment across the professional sector would be of concern,” Catchpole said.
“As a professional services organisation we are very interested in what provisions in the FTA that assist mining service organisations to extend their business in China.”
The new Free Trade Agreement will allow Chinese workers to be brought in on infrastructure projects worth $150 million or more, far lower than the existing threshold of $2billion, according to Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney.
“We have fears that they have lowered the threshold so low … and this could be a real problem for Australian workers,” she said.
Employment minister Eric Abetz said unemployed Australians should see the Free Trade Agreement as “a very real opportunity for them, their families, their sons and daughters, to be able to gain employment in circumstances where we now have access to the world's largest market,” he told ABC.
When asked if Australian workers could be shut out of employment by Chinese companies specifying a requirement to speak Mandarin or Cantonese, Abetz said he could not see that being widespread, albeit a potential need for a small number of jobs.
“They would have to make out a very strong case as to why, in Australia, where we speak Australian, why the particular language skill is so vital,” he said.
Senator Abetz warned that this would not be an opportunity for Chinese companies to undercut Australian pay conditions.
“If people want to play that game then they will have the full force of the Australian law to deal with,” he said.
Chinese banking figure Li Ruogu, who is chairman and president of the Export-Import Bank of China, applauded the opening of labour freedoms to Chinese companies, but asked for labour issues to be reconsidered for greater freedom, according to The Australian.
“We know it is very difficult, but if Australia can give permission for Chinese labourers to help with infrastructure construction, then the mines and other projects we both need will be completed quickly, and the workers will go back to China. They won’t remain in Australia,” he said.
“Then Australia will employ local people to work in those mines and other infrastructure. That will be good for employment, and therefore beneficial for Australia.”
Li acknowledged this would be difficult to pass through the Australian parliament, and added “but Australian labour costs are too high”.
He said that in return it should be easier for Australian companies to get listings on Chinese stockmarkets, which would make it easier to raise capital for Australian projects.