Australia's Big Dig For Foreign Workers

Slim, blonde and passionate about her job, she sits in Karratha’s busy single-storey airport, waiting for a jet to take her home. She has swapped her hard-hat and orange-striped overalls for a short-sleeved cotton top, jeans and sneakers. Wearing her sunglasses like a hair-band, she looks out of place in a departure lounge crowded mostly with unshaven men.

Only the dirt beneath her short fingernails and tanned, weathered hands would suggest she has something in common.

“Australia is like an El Dorado,” says Lievaux, who came a year ago on a holiday. She now nets $5,000 (3,047.11 pounds) a month, working two weeks out of every three at the Whim Creek prospect, an old open-cut copper mine dug out of the red rocky plain.

“It’s so easy, so easy to find a job here as a geologist.”

And it’s so hard for Australia to find enough workers like Lievaux to sustain its mining boom. The tightening labour market is driving up wages, and combined with the resurgent Aussie dollar, is putting pressure on the entire manufacturing sector.

Lievaux may earn about $60,000 a year after tax and be chauffeured to work in a jet, but she is not particularly well paid by the standards of Karratha, an Aboriginal word meaning “good country, and other remote boom towns.

A mine supervisor can earn in excess of $200,000, more than the head of the U.S. Federal Reserve. A truck-driver’s salary easily runs into six figures. A construction worker can make over $150,000, more than a doctor or lawyer.

“You can get girls cleaning at the mine camps and they can easily earn $100,000 a year,” says Tracy Reis, 42, a travel agent based in Karratha.

The reason for this labour shortage, and the sky-high wages that come with it, is simple: Australia, with a population of 22 million, does not have the workforce to exploit its enormous natural bounty — at least not at the pace required to satisfy Asia’s hunger for resources.

The mining and resources industry, including oil and gas, has roughly $400 billion in new projects on the drawing board in Australia and will need another roughly 70,000 workers over the next five years alone, according to government estimates.

The construction industry is projected to need another 196,000 workers over the same period, many of them associated with new mining and energy projects.

The boom is just beginning and, already, labour is short — not just for skilled jobs like geologists but also for unskilled work, creating a situation where even building labourers, cleaners, cooks and drivers are earning stratospheric wages.

But rather than flinging open the doors to foreign guest workers to fill these lower-level jobs, as countries such as Singapore and Dubai have done, Australia is taking measured and, some economists say, inadequate steps to import overseas labour.

GUEST WORKERS

Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart believes strongly it is time for a rethink.

“Australia needs guest workers”, says the nation’s richest person, with a fortune worth more than $10 billion. Reuters

Rinehart is chairman of Hancock Prospecting Pty Ltd and daughter of the firm’s late founder, Lang Hancock, who pioneered the country’s iron ore industry in the 1950s and ’60s after discovering a mother lode in the rust-red landscape of the northwest Pilbara region, inland from Karratha.

Rinehart is fond of ruby-red lipstick and wears her dark wavy hair cut to her shoulders and sometimes a string of pearls, but she has the same flinty reputation as her father, the “king of the Pilbara”, a famously hard-headed entrepreneur who once proposed using nuclear blasts to develop iron ore ports.

Rinehart declined an interview with Reuters but answered questions by email, saying Australia not only needed highly skilled migrant workers — such as French geologist Lucile — but also required unskilled, short-term guest workers for the costly, labour-intensive construction phase of development.

“Guest workers would benefit from jobs in Australia, increasing their skills and enabling them to provide for their own family’s needs, so it is humanitarian assistance for them; in short, a win-win,” she said.

Rinehart likens her idea to the use of seasonal workers in the farm sector to pick fruit — when the work dries up, the workers go home — but her suggestion that Australia should follow Singapore’s economic model has angered trade unions.

In Singapore, unskilled foreign workers such as labourers and domestic servants are paid less than S$1,800 ($1,465) a month and cannot permanently resettle.

Paul Howes, a firebrand union leader and an influential figure in ruling Labour party circles, recently blew the whistle on what he says was one attempt in the oil industry to bring in Filipino workers on “slave-labour pay”.

“We have told the government that we cannot stand by and allow what is essentially the trafficking of cheap labour from Asia into the remote northwest of Western Australia,” says Howes, head of the Australian Workers Union (AWU).

The issue of guest workers is explosive because it implies below-market wages and challenges the national ideal of an egalitarian state. Australia thinks of itself as the land of a “fair go”, a classless society founded in the 18th century by convict outcasts from the industrial slums of Britain. Reuters