Release type: Transcript


Interview with Alexandra Kirk on ABC Radio's The World Today


Senator the Hon Eric Abetz
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Minister for Employment
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service
Senator for Tasmania

ELEANOR HALL: The Federal Government is attempting to reassure Australian workers that the free trade deal with China won't undercut their jobs or their pay. The union movement has expressed concern about the much lower threshold for migration agreements. The free trade agreement will also allow Chinese companies to bring in workers on three-month skilled visas and has expanded the Chinese opportunities in other visa categories. The Employment Minister, Eric Abetz, told Alexandra Kirk that every Chinese worker will have to be paid according to Australian standards.

MINISTER ABETZ: The job opportunities will be bountiful and the rules that apply today will continue to apply under this China-Australia free trade agreement. So it's exceptionally good news for Australian workers.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: We have an example from a plasterer, in a News Ltd report today, saying he was working on a building site in Melbourne when a team of Chinese workers were employed there, and they told him they were on temporary visas, paid $16.50 an hour – less than half the going rate under an enterprise agreement.

MINISTER ABETZ: And, if that is the assertion that he's made, then clearly that should be reported to the Fair Work Ombudsman and to the immigration officials so that they can investigate, and I have no doubt that they will be pursuing this matter.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: As we know, it's all in the auditing or policing of labour market agreements and also labour market testing. How many of the labour market deals do you think will be audited?

MINISTER ABETZ: I'm not sure to the number that will be audited, but what I would say…

ALEXANDRA KIRK: But not all of them, as a rule?

MINISTER ABETZ: That, I'm not sure of. What I can say is that if anybody is aware of any agreement that sees workers being paid less than the Australian standard, they should make the relevant authorities know about that as a matter of absolute urgency. Because we don't want to see Australian workers' conditions being undercut through these mechanisms, and if people want to play that game, they will have the full force of the Australian law to deal with.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Is it open, for example, for Chinese companies, say, to specify that employees be able to speak Cantonese or Mandarin when they're conducting their labour market testing, and that could shut out a number of Australian workers?

MINISTER ABETZ: Alex, that's a hypothetical. 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. Now, it might be needed in a very small number of jobs – potentially that's the case, but I can't see that as being widespread at all.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The free trade deal is potentially a very big opportunity for Chinese workers to come to Australia. Are you really prepared for the possibility that, say, labour hire firms are going to game the system, because there are big gains to be made?

MINISTER ABETZ: The influx of workers would only be if the current tests are abided by, and so I cannot see a scenario where there would be such an influx because the current tests will remain. But can I also say that the other side of the coin is that we are able to set up companies, wholly owned Australian companies now, in China and, as a result, we and the Australian workforce get those reciprocal benefits in China. So the free trade agreement has the potential to grow Australian industry, Australian wealth, Australian jobs like never before.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: So, in this deal, is there the equivalent of a 457 visa to bring Australian workers into China?

MINISTER ABETZ: I'm not sure as to the exact details, and my colleague Andrew Robb has and will continue to negotiate the very fine details of this agreement.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The fact is that this has hit a raw nerve, particularly when unemployment is on the rise. So can you assure workers that there is no downside to this for them?

MINISTER ABETZ: I'm surprised by the question – why this is hitting a raw nerve at a time of high unemployment? The way you get rid of high unemployment is through free trade agreements which allow us to play to our strengths. Our strengths are resources, our strengths are the services sector, the agricultural sector. And already under this Government for the first time in many years, we've actually seen a growth in the workforce in the agricultural sector, and that is only going to grow now with this free trade agreement with China. So every unemployed worker should see this 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 where we now have access to the world's largest market.

ELEANOR HALL: That’s the federal Employment Minister, Senator Eric Abetz, speaking to Alexandra Kirk.