THE use of migrant workers to bolster the workforce in Western Australia is becoming more commonplace, with a 12 per cent increase in the number of temporary visa holders in the state.
Migrant workers employed on 457 visas now number just less than 22,000, but that is likely to grow due to a 75 per cent increase in the number of visa applications granted in the 2011-12 financial year.
In all, 9,280 visas were granted in 2010-11; last financial year that rose to 16,290.
While employers’ use of temporary migration schemes is often criticised - as seen by the Australian Manufacturing Union’s reaction to the federal government’s approval for Chevron to import 150 foreign workers for its Gorgon LNG project - those needing to grow their future workforce strongly support the schemes.
Despite opposition from unions, which say Western Australia has enough potential workers to fill the roles, strategies such as Chevron’s labour agreement are being viewed as an integral part of the answer to WA’s continued labour shortages.
Chevron’s agreement with the federal government followed Hancock Prospecting’s success in securing an enterprise migration agreement to import up to 1,700 foreign workers during the three-year construction phase for its Roy Hill project - a factor Hancock executive director Tad Watroba said was integral to the project securing bank funding.
“When the original concept (for Roy Hill) emerged two or three years ago there were not enough people to fill all the work; as part of actually dealing with the potential issue of financing, we had to go that way,” Mr Watroba recently told a conference in Perth.
Hancock is yet to secure final funding to allow the Roy Hill project to go ahead, and Mr Watroba acknowledged it was difficult to know if the company would need to take advantage of the EMA, as this would depend on how decisions on other major projects affected the labour market.
But he has committed the company to following the government’s stipulation to make every effort to employ Australian workers before going offshore.
“If you get good workers from here, why would you pay to fly someone else from overseas? You have to pay them the same, plus you have to pay extra for accommodation and flights, so it doesn’t make good sense,” Mr Watroba said.
“But if you have to fill the positions, you have to bring people.”
Skills the key
The long-term labour shortage problem is not as simplistic as a maths calculation of jobs available versus people needing work, however. An essential component is the ability to source the right people.
Once Chevron’s Gorgon and Wheatstone projects come into operation, each will require a permanent workforce of about 340 with at least some relevant operations experience; given the state’s relatively immature oil and gas sector, some doubt the availability of suitably qualified workers in WA.
It’s that situation which Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA chief economist John Nicolaou said made skilled migration strategies important for building an able workforce.
“Increasing labour supply through different forms of temporary and permanent migration is essential; Australia is a nation built on migration and will continue to rely on migration to build our population and grow our workforce,” Mr Nicolaou told WA Business News.
“Businesses today are confronted with this dual challenge that they can’t find the labour they need, and if they do they have to pay a lot for the right person, or they recruit someone who isn’t quite what they want and they suffer the productivity setbacks.”
The need for workers with specific skill sets is exemplified in figures on the highest users of 457 visas. Mechanical engineering technicians and civil engineers were the professionals coming to WA in the largest numbers on temporary 457 visas in the 2011-12 financial year.
Geologists made up the next largest group of 457 migrants, all of which runs contrary to assumptions that semi-skilled workers seeking work in labouring positions are overloading the temporary migration channels.
A study by Edith Cowan University found that the employment of skilled workers was a benefit to the company concerned in terms of productivity, and to the economy as a whole.
“When workers on 457 visas are employed within Australia they also transfer their knowledge, skills and cultural differences as well as contributing directly to the economy through spending money on general living expenses and by paying taxes,” the study concluded.
The number of workers in WA on 457 visas reached 19,430 in the 2010-11 financial year, but this number increased to 21,852 in the 2011-12 year.
The construction and mining sectors accounted for almost half of all the temporary 457 visas granted in the 2011-12 financial year, with about 4,000 people migrating to WA for construction roles; a further 3,630 migrated for mining-related roles.
However it was the manufacturing sector that had the biggest increase in the employment of workers on 457 visas over the year.
In the 2010-11 financial year, 650 manufacturing workers migrated to WA; that figure grew by more than 120 per cent in 2011-12 to 1,440.
More work ahead
Use of temporary migration channels is clearly benefiting large enterprises and small companies that employ and sponsor workers outside of the resources industry.
In Mr Nicolaou’s view, however, improvements need to be made to the policies already in place.
“There has been certainly a lot of work done to help address long-term labour supply challenges that we face, but there are still improvements that can be made to streamline them - especially in terms of the length of time that’s taken to implement them, because in that time the environment can change quite significantly,” Mr Nicolaou said.
“We’re not seeing any decisions made that are aimed at addressing long-term challenges; what we are seeing is almost a lowest-com-mon-denominator approach that is focused on the short term.”