I love the anti-ChAFTA advertisement sponsored by Australia’s Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union. More effective than a thousand economic arguments is the image of light bulbs disintegrating as jobs are snatched from deserving, photogenic Aussies. A voice tells us, more in sorrow than anger, that Tony Abbott has given away the game to China.
The unions’ anxiety is based on the idea that Chinese companies will import armies of low paid Chinese workers to do the job of Australians. Which is just crap. That’s simply not going to happen for three reasons:
1. Local Councils – Unions have been exercised by part of ChAFTA that says “Australia will remove the requirement for mandatory skills assessment” for a variety of construction-related trades. Which is absolutely true, the agreement does say that. But it doesn’t say anything about excusing Chinese companies from local building standards, or relieving them of local council oversight. When I think about a Chinese electrician, with no English and no knowledge of Australian building standards, listening to a local inspector explaining why his work has failed to meet Title 5, Section III, Subparagraph A, Point 7 of the local building code, I just want to laugh.
2. Runners – I pity the poor idiot who brings low paid, moderately skilled workers to a place as beautiful as Australia and then has to keep them from doing a runner. Large-scale importation of Chinese workers has been successful in African countries where the local skills are low and the local environment is uninviting. But in Australia? A country that many Chinese see as, literally, the nicest place on earth? Be serious. The workers would be applying with the local Australian firms like a shot. Or simply disappearing into the country. Unless ChAFTA also allows for indentured servitude and physical restraint (which it does not), the attrition rate among imported workers would be ruinous.
3. Money – On average, workers in China make about 25% of what Australian’s make. Which sounds like a good savings until you start adding on the extras. Working overseas usually earns a 50% to 100% premium over domestic work, especially if the worker speaks any English. Housing, food and transportation have to be provided. Higher local health and safety standards have to be met. The list goes on and, in the end the savings simply don’t justify the trouble of importing large numbers of workers.
Will we see some dormitories in Perth, Brisbane and Sydney filled with Chinese construction workers? Certainly. Will it move the needle even slightly on employment for Australian tradies? Not a chance. If anything, ChAFTA will result in more development projects that require more Australian craftsmen, both to build and to maintain.
So, like me, appreciate the cleverness of exploding light bulbs and pictures of sad tradies being sold out by the Prime Minister. But don’t mistake that for the actual loss of Australian jobs. Because that’s simply not going to happen.