Foreign workers may not be needed after all

by Stephanie Zillman19 Feb 2013

When the Commonwealth last year announced it had approved Hancock Prospecting’s proposal to bring in 1,700 foreign workers, there was a wave of union protests.

Yet Gina Rinehart’s firm has now announced it is confident it will not have to hire foreign workers to build its Roy Hill iron ore mine in Western Australia's Pilbara. The company had previously said it would not be able to source enough workers locally.

A spokesman for the Roy Hill project said that if current economic conditions continue, the company should be able to hire its workforce from within Australia. This is in part a result of several other large resources projects being cancelled.

The Federal Government has released a statement saying it is pleased the Roy Hill project has made employing Australians a priority, while the construction union labelled the news a “victory”. Joe McDonald from the CFMEU said the decision is a relief.  “It’s a victory for common sense, it's a victory for Australian workers and it's a victory for the trade union movement,” he said.

Yet a study released last year by Perth's Edith Cowan University School of Management, found that HR at mining and resources companies are not giving away jobs to migrants that could have gone to Australian workers.

According to researchers, HR continues to battle a frustrating misconception whereby the public believe temporary migrant workers are favoured over skilled locals. Preliminarily findings from the pilot study strongly indicated that migrants on 457 visas are filling highly-skilled positions that simply cannot be met by using the local workforce alone. “Some of the skills required are so specialised and only taught in one or two institutions globally, that the skill-set required is simply not available,” research leader Susanne Bahn said.

As a case in point, Bahn gave the example of helicopter engineers who are needed to maintain equipment for oil and gas projects. These specialist engineers typically require up to six specialised licences that are only taught in the UK and France.

The researchers found that the migrant workforce play a significant role in helping major projects get off the ground, and backed up speculation that some skilled workers from the eastern states are reluctant to relocate to Western Australia. There is evidence which indicates that even when eastern-based workers had been recently made redundant, many would still be reluctant to move west because of the high cost of living in Western Australia, a lack of infrastructure in some areas, as well as due to social and family reasons.


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