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Unions could make a difference for workers if they canned the sloganism

By Simon Cowan and Alex Philipatos - posted Monday, 25 June 2012

The recent burst of union outrage over the Gillard government’s approval of Enterprise Migration Agreements (EMAs) reveals the damaging contradictions the union movement has employed in its battles over the last 20 years.

Despite the potential of major mining projects to generate thousands of new jobs for Australian workers and train the next generation of apprentices, unions have opposed allowing new projects to proceed if foreign labour is needed to make them viable. Unionists, who remain loyal to the movement’s outdated ideology, appear terrified of letting of go of the past and are only interested in generating new jobs on their own terms.

The unions’ objections to EMAs, which have even been picked up by protectionist politicians such as Bob Katter (which should be a big red flag right there), can be reduced to two simple points. First, every job given to a foreign worker is one less job for an Australian worker, and second, bringing in foreign workers undermines Australian wages.


These arguments do not stand up to scrutiny. The EMA submission guidelines clearly state that Australian workers are given preference over foreign workers. So the ‘they took our jobs’ chest-beating is simply a diversion.

Nor are anecdotes of people being overlooked for mining work a credible answer to the detailed evidence of skills shortages in the report by the government’s National Resources Sector Employment Taskforce. There is little to be gained from forcing miners to employ inexperienced, underqualified people for short-term contract roles.

The second argument is even more spurious. Temporary work visas require the visa-holder’s salary to be matched to market rates. There are also serious penalties for breaching immigration law. So sweeping generalisations about the so-called “true” and nefarious purposes of the mining community should be seen as the empty, partisan rhetoric it is.

Trade union membership has collapsed from its glory days in the 1970s where half the workforce belonged to a union. With membership at a dismal 18%, unions need to do more than shout the slogans of yester-year to demonstrate their relevance.

There is a simple, practical way the unions could engage with mining companies to their members’ benefit -worker training initiatives for upcoming projects. The unions could identify and support experienced, qualified workers interested in relocating and the mining companies could provide exposure to future working conditions during training and commit to taking on new staff. The training costs could be deducted out of the new employee’s salary over the course of the project.

Better still, the unions and miners could work with councils and regional development bodies to identify job opportunities and community links for the families of relocating workers, which would greatly improve the viability of relocation for older workers.


These initiatives might remove the need for a government workforce planning authority, which would only create more red tape, delay major project approvals, and chew up tax revenue.

But to achieve this, unions, mining companies and government would have to put ideology and mutual mistrust to one side -an unlikely event.  Allen Hicks, secretary of the Communications Electrical and Plumbing Union, recently accused big business of walking away from ‘any responsibility it once had to train young Australians’, and that businesses are instead insisting on the costs of training being ‘socialised’. 

Leaving aside any incredulity at the thought of a union leader accusing mining companies of acting socialist, Hicks has conveniently ignored any responsibility on the part of the unions to contribute to training workers. At times the unions act as if ‘big business’ is an endless font of unbridled job security, ever increasing wages and conditions, and unlimited employment creation.  Now it can be added that businesses must take the fall for any gaps in training young workers as well.

Grace Collier noted recently that unions are benefitting greatly from government grants for education and training, so perhaps there is light at the bottom of the mineshaft yet. Rather than ‘attacking these guys’, unions might start working with mining companies to provide tangible benefits to the workers of Australia. There are ways to spread the benefits of the boom without punitive taxation, and this way might even help arrest the terminal decline of unions in Australia.

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About the Authors

Simon Cowan is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.

Alex Philipatos is policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Simon Cowan
All articles by Alex Philipatos

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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