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Insight program's take on Labor Shortage

Posted by Sheila Newman on behalf of Mark O'Connor.

Tonight’s Insight program on SBS (June 17, 2008) –“Is Australia running out of workers” was very interesting about how we are now digging up and shipping out our minerals so fast, and so profitably, that other employers can’t compete with the wages paid by the mining companies. Employers are desperate for staff, but with unemployment currently low they can’t get workers at the wages, or the wages and conditions, they are able or willing to pay. (The most genuine case seemed to be the orchardist who had to leave several thousand dollars worth of mandarins unpicked because she couldn’t find pickers anywhere. Other employers seemed to be on the usual lurk of wanting the government to give them cheap workers.)

We are now so greedy that we want to ship abroad our mineral patrimony even faster than our existing workforce, with all the mechanical aids and vast machines now available, ­can manage. So the solution proposed by short-sighted business councils and some economists is to bring in ever more people to make up the shortfall in labor.

The result is of course that the extra workers will rapidly swell the population of Australia, so that the average Australian will own a steadily decreasing share of our mineral riches, which are themselves steadily decreasing. The future will be one of an unsustainable population in an impoverished continent –in a world beset by fuel shortages, climate change, and famines. And all for the short-term benefit of mining companies and those whose fortunes depend on a rising stock market.

Of course Jenny Brockie and her staff didn’t manage to see it in those terms. They took the reckless sell-off of our once-only mineral assets as a datum. Hence they also took as a given that there would not be enough workers in the country to service both the mining industry and the other more localized industries on which we depend for all sorts of supplies and services. And they also took as given that the mining industry would be able to pay rates other employers could not.

Granted all those unquestioned assumptions, they proceeded to examine quite rationally whether 457 visas (which it seems allow employers to pay about $10,000 on average less than they would have to pay Australian workers) were the best solution, or whether we should take in even more people as permanent migrants, or on the contrary run a guest worker system for Pacific migrants, or whether we needed to better train and motivate our own youth. The dishonesties and special pleading of employer organistions were fairly well exposed, and the CFMEU’s argument about it being no kindness to poor countries to take their skilled workers and doctors and nurses was respectfully examined.

But the underlying cause of the labor shortage, and the wisdom of selling off all your mineral assets as fast as possible, was not discussed.

Mark O'Connor

See also : Transcript of Insight program of 17 Jun 08 Labour Pains