We must support Australian apprentices - Terri Butler MP, Labor for Griffith

We must support Australian apprentices

I spoke on the Migration Amendment (Skilling Australians Fund) Bill 2017 and Migration (Skilling Australians Fund) Charges Bill 2017 in the House of Representatives earlier this year.

You can read the full speech below.

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (12:02): As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, training and skills shortages are a significant issue in this country and they have been for many years. In fact, I remember about a decade ago holding a policy consultation in Emerald, which, as people will know, is a town quite near Gladstone in Central Queensland. There was a lot of talk at the time about the resources boom and what might be done to ensure that we would have the skills needed for the jobs that existed then and the jobs that would, people hoped, exist in the future. People came to that consultation from a lot of different places. Some of them drove for many hours to be there to raise their concerns that they had then about the use of guest workers, the failure to train people, big firms' failure to invest in training people, and big firms assuming that small business would undertake the training and then poaching people once they'd completed their apprenticeships and traineeships.

It was clear then, as it's clear now, that the training system that we have in this country needs a lot of work. When I say it's also clear now, one example that was given by the member for Parramatta is the drop in apprenticeships since this government was elected. It's the same in my electorate, where apprenticeships have fallen through the floor. They've dropped by about a third since this Liberal government was elected back in 2013.

So I think we would all agree that what this country needs to do is to work on the issue that we're facing, which is that we don't have enough apprentices or trainees being trained, employers aren't necessarily investing in training people to the extent that we would all like, and vocational education has been underfunded for a very long time now.

That's why it's important to acknowledge that the Migration Amendment (Skilling Australians Fund) Bill 2017, which seeks to impose a training levy on those employers who use guest workers, temporary skilled migrants, will make a contribution to apprenticeships and training in this country. It's something that a number of people, including me, have called for in the past, saying that, if you are going to benefit from the fact that, for specific skills shortages purposes, we will allow into this country temporary skilled migrants, then you ought to make a contribution to our community in return for that benefit, and the contribution should be in the form of training new people for the jobs that exist now and the jobs that will exist in the future.

The corollary to that is that, if we want to be serious as a nation about saying that temporary skilled migration is for skills shortages, then we need to be confident that temporary skilled migration is actually being used for that purpose and not for other purposes. I'm sure you will have heard, as I have heard, from people who say that on worksites where they're working there are people on 417 or 457 visas working next to them, doing the same sorts of work that they're doing, while at the same time there are people in our community who live here, who are permanent residents or citizens, who are unable to get that sort of work. We need to stop this.

Temporary skilled migration should be for the purpose of filling temporary skills shortages. That means that, firstly, before we have employers hiring temporary skilled migrants—people on 457 visas particularly—they should have to be absolutely prudent and confident in ensuring that there are not Australian citizens or permanent residents with those qualifications who would be suitable for the work. In other words, labour market testing is very important.

Secondly, we must do what we can to ensure that skills shortages are genuinely temporary. The point of temporary skilled migration is not to obviate the need to train for the future; in fact, it emphasises the need to train for the future. If the use of temporary skilled migration is an admission that we do not have sufficient skilled workers in Australia to undertake certain jobs, certain roles and certain functions, then that is a clear signal that we need to train people now to develop those skills so that they can fill those jobs. It's not enough to look at the importance of labour market testing when you talk about skilled migration. You cannot talk about temporary skilled migration without also being committed to training to end the skills shortage.

We know that we hear from employers from across all industries in respect of skills shortages from time to time and to varying degrees. I've certainly spoken to people in the oil and gas industry, for example, who are frustrated when they can't necessarily obtain the local skilled labour that they're looking for in relation to specific types of work. You hear that in all sorts of occupations—in construction and in other occupations as well—and I've certainly got a lot of people in my electorate who are here on temporary skilled visas.

The fact that everyone is talking about these skills shortages should be a very clear signal to government that there needs to be serious investment in training. We need to be training people for the jobs now and the jobs of the future. That should also be made clear by levels of youth unemployment, not just in my electorate, where it is usually in double digits, but in more regional areas and more remote areas such as Far North Queensland, where youth unemployment can be up around the 20 to 25 per cent mark. It is an absolute indictment on this country when we have regions in which youth unemployment is so high, and at the same time we still have such a large temporary skilled migration program.

For those reasons, I want to make a couple of observations about the bill in respect of labour market testing, and I want to make some observations in respect of the investment in training that's needed in this country. Firstly, in respect of labour market testing, Labor wants genuine labour market testing. We do not want a box that can be ticked so that you can say, 'Yes, I've certainly looked around, and, sure, there are definitely no Australian workers that can do this.' We don't want a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise that can be easily undermined; we want genuine labour market testing.

The reason that we want genuine labour market testing is that Australian Labor wants to put local workers first. Australian Labor wants to put local workers first. Not only can you see our commitment to that from the responses that we're making to the bill that we're discussing today but you can see that in the private member's bill that Australian Labor have moved in this parliament; you can see it in the policies that we took to the last election; and you can see it in the policies that people like the shadow minister, the member for Gorton, and the Leader of the Opposition have been announcing.

We are concerned that the labour market testing obligations under this legislation are insufficient, will not be genuine and will not lead to employers being forced to offer employment to Australians first where there are suitable Australians ready, willing and able to do the job. That's all we ask for: that locals be given that opportunity. If you've got a suitable person in the community who doesn't have a job, then they should get it before you start to import people from overseas.

The second thing I wanted to say about labour market testing is that, whenever we have raised concerns about international agreements that have eroded labour market testing, the epithets hurled across the chamber towards us that we're somehow against free trade for doing so are completely unreasonable. We will never make any apologies for standing up for labour market testing. We of course want to see international trade. Of course we do; it's incredibly beneficial for the community. But the support of international trade is not something that requires you to be uncritical about the provisions of bills that you feel are not sufficiently respecting the interests and rights of Australians, including Australian workers.

In saying this, I wanted to make the very clear point that labour market testing remains important to avoid the misuse of temporary skilled migration, and I don't want to see the misuse of temporary skilled migration. Temporary skilled migrants are vulnerable compared to Australian workers. They're at risk, if they lose their job, of having to return home. That, of course, puts them in a slightly different power dynamic to the power dynamic that Australian workers have. The consequence of them having less power vis-a-vis their employer compared with Australian workers is that they may be less willing to stand up for themselves. They may be more prone to vulnerability and exploitation.

I've spoken here before about a former client of mine who was a temporary skilled migrant who was expected to work unpaid overtime. He actually stood up for himself, and the consequence for him ultimately was that he prevailed, but in the meantime he had to go back home because falling out with the company meant that they left him in a situation where he was no longer eligible to hold the visa. Ultimately he prevailed, as I said, but not all temporary skilled migrants are so lucky. They are vulnerable compared to Australian workers, so we do need to be very careful before we start to increase the numbers of temporary skilled migrants.

Their vulnerability doesn't just affect them, of course. They may be less willing to stand up for strong pay and conditions. And in a nation like ours where we have incredibly weak wages growth—in fact, the lowest levels of wages growth since we started keeping the wage price index in 1997—the last thing we want to do is have a workforce that feels too cowed and too weak to stand up for better wages and conditions. So it is important that we remember, when we're using temporary skilled migrants, whether they are 417 or 457 visa holders, that they may be less powerful and therefore may be more prone to accepting lesser wages and conditions and to voting in enterprise bargaining ballots for conditions that may be less appropriate or less generous than might be voted for by Australian workers.

I also said I wanted to say something about investment in training. As I said, the use of temporary skilled migration implies that there is a temporary skills shortage. If we want the skills shortage to be temporary and not permanent, the way to deal with that is to invest in training. Investing in training is important not just for Australian businesses, to ensure that they will not face skills shortages in the future, but also for Australians more broadly, because people who are in the workforce now do not want to have to be in a situation where companies might avoid labour market testing or comply with weak labour market testing requirements and, therefore, seek to hire temporary skilled migrants rather than local workers. It's also important for young people who are looking into the future and thinking about what they might want to do. It's important for them that there be training opportunities. That means investing in training.

When you look at the funding of vocational education in this country, the erosion of public funding for TAFE, the attractiveness of trades training, the fact that, for example, this government cut funds to trades training centres in schools so that very few of them, particularly in my electorate, actually have trades training centres, it's no surprise to anyone that the message that is sent about training is that it's something that is not particularly attractive to young people. That's the last thing we need.

We need training to have the same status as university education. That means we need to invest in training. When I say that, I don't mean that middle-class kids should go to uni and working-class kids should go into training. That's the opposite of what I mean. If training had the same status then a kid with a great academic record at an elite private school would be equally attracted to the trades as to academia. We're seeing more and more people doing both vocational and higher education. If we can make our trades more attractive, including by investing in training, that will open up more and more interesting career paths for the kids today who are looking around and trying to make a decision about what to do. That's really important, because as an economy we don't want skills shortages that will lead to distortions in the way that firms operate, but as a nation we want our citizens to have every opportunity available to them into the future.

While I welcome the levy being discussed in this legislation, it's not enough to say, 'We're going to start this Skilling Australians Fund using the levy.' It's a good start. I don't oppose the levy; I support the levy. It's something I've previously called for myself as many as 10 years ago—I started this speech by talking about a policy consultation I held back in Emerald about a decade ago—but it's just not enough. We seriously need to invest in training. We need to get TAFEs up to scratch. We need investment in public TAFE. We need skills focused training that looks, as best we can, at what changes might happen in the future, what industries might exist in the future and what skills people might need for those future industries and future jobs. We need to make sure that training is directed towards those things.

There are some great things happening in training. It is not all doom and gloom. In my home state of Queensland people like Construction Skills Queensland, Electrical Skills Queensland and Industry Training Queensland are doing some absolutely fantastic training work. A range of training bodies have been set up in a tripartite partnership between government, industry and unions representing the workforce within those sectors. Good work is being done. The resources states, particularly my state, are facing challenges as the resources boom winds down. About 10,000 people were working to construct Curtis Island. It's now constructed, and you need only a few hundred people to operate an LNG plant like that. We have a lot of people who need to look at what their skills can evolve into. I suggest that, if there is funding in this fund, my state of Queensland would be a very good place to look at for the expenditure of that funding. I'm sure you may have a slightly different view, Mr Deputy Speaker Hastie, being a Western Australian. Regardless of what happens, this is a start but is so far from being enough. We need to invest more in training, we need to support the futures of our kids and we need to support the future of our economy.

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