The federal government’s support for increased skilled migration has won praise from US petroleum giant Chevron, which expects to have more foreign workers at its Gorgon gas project next year when construction activity reaches a peak.
Chevron is close to finalising an enterprise migration agreement and is likely to be the first project developer to take advantage of the new scheme.
It is also expected to benefit from other reforms, including an agreement announced this week to speed up the processing of electricians, plumbers and other licensed ‘tradies’ coming to Australia from the United States.
Gorgon project general manager Colin Beckett told a media briefing last Friday that contractors at Gorgon were currently coping okay with finding skilled labour.
However, he expected more pressure next year, when the project workforce increases from 3,300 to 5,000 and the work changes from civil construction to electrical and mechanical contracting.
“From a policy point of view, the government is recognising that it would prefer to manage this peak through having foreign workers coming in rather than stripping every other sector,” Mr Beckett said. “We are seeing a much more constructive approach from government in allowing companies to bring people in.”
Enterprise migration agreements are a new option for projects with at least 1,500 workers and capital spending of $2 billion.
A spokesman for immigration minister Chris Bowen declined to comment on specific negotiations but did confirm that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) was in advanced negotiations over its first EMA and was having discussions with several other companies.
To be approved for an EMA, project owners are required to develop a comprehensive workforce and training plan to demonstrate the project is making best efforts to source workers locally before overseas workers are recruited.
Project owners are also expected to consult with unions and peak industry bodies and satisfy them that skills shortages exist.
There has been concern among industry groups that these conditions would discourage the use of EMAs but that has evidently not been the case at Gorgon.
The Gorgon EMA is expected to apply to contractors, which actually employ most of the workers during the construction phase.
The scheme for US ‘tradies’ will enable them to obtain a provisional licence immediately on arrival in Australia; previously they had to apply after arriving in Australia, using a process that could take months.
This is the latest of several initiatives by Canberra to facilitate temporary skilled migration.
Other notable changes include allowing labour hire firms to be a sponsoring employer for workers on the popular section 457 visa and relaxing the English language test.
The state government, which has consistently criticised Canberra for not moving fast enough, has also made policy changes to boost skilled migration.
Most recently, it removed the labour market testing element of the regional sponsored migration scheme.
The test meant businesses needed to show documentation of extensive job advertising of three months for a position before they could access the regional migration scheme.
Chamber of Commerce and Industry of WA policy manager Lena Constantine said she was pleased the government had responded to requests made by industry.
“This is a commonsense approach from the state government that will remove some of unnecessary red tape that previously held back businesses meeting their demands for workers in this current scarce labour market,” Ms Constantine said.
“For many businesses the ability to respond quickly to market demands is crucial to the success of their business.”
The Australian Hotels Association (WA) also welcomed the change.
“The WA hospitality industry is in desperate need of semi-skilled labour,” chief executive Bradley Woods said.
“We are not seeking skilled migrants looking for permanent resident visas, nor are we looking to replace local people in hospitality but, for those regions where semi-skilled positions cannot be filled with local staff improvements in immigration, requirements are welcome.”
Another federal government initiative to help the tourism and hospitality industry is the planned establishment of a labour agreement template for the sector.