Confusion reigns over what China free trade agreement will mean for Australia

Engine service

THE Federal Government has moved quickly to shut down suggestions that Australia’s newly inked free trade agreement with China will open the doors to a flood of cheap labour.

For the Australian car industry, this could mean an influx of Chinese automotive mechanics, diesel mechanics, auto electricians and crash repairers.

The agreement, ratified last month, includes the clause that the two countries will move to “streamline relevant skills assessment processes for temporary skilled labour visas, including through reducing the number of occupations currently subject to mandatory skills assessment for Chinese applicants for an Australian Temporary Work (Skilled) visa (subclass 457)”.

Shortly after the FTA was announced, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade published an explanatory note on its website that hosed down union fears that the agreement tipped the balance in favour of Chinese workers.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has also since weighed in, saying today that the agreement would “secure the future employment of generations of Australians”.

Geoff Gwilym, the executive director the Victorian Automotive Chamber of Commerce, which represents the car servicing and repairs industry, said the terms of the agreement relating to Chinese car and automotive mechanics were not clear.

“What they [China] call an apprenticeship system may not be anything like our apprenticeship system,” Gwilym said.

“It’s interesting that they use the words ‘could be assessed’ and ‘may be assessed’ – what they describe as streamlining, we might call fast-tracking. It’s really hard to know what it means in real life.”

He said it was also difficult to know if the Chinese mechanics were being trained on modern cars in big cities, or motorcycles in rural areas, or if their apprenticeship scheme was weighted towards theory rather than hands-on workshop experience.

However, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that, rather than exposing Australia’s automotive industry to less skilled labour, the China Australia Free Trade Agreement “does not change the required skill levels for Chinese visa applicants”.

“Under ChAFTA, all Chinese applicants for a subclass 457 temporary work (skilled) visa, including automotive electricians, diesel motor mechanics and motor mechanics (general), will still need to have the requisite skills, qualifications and work experience to work safely in Australia, as well as meeting all the other regular visa requirements, before a 457 temporary work visa is granted,” a spokesperson for the department told Wheels.

“All such visa holders will also continue to have to obtain any required federal, state or territory licenses or registration, to commence work within 90 days of arriving in Australia and be engaged in accordance with Australian workplace law, including awards and workplace health and safety,” she said.

According to Gwilym, overseas mechanics were already being used in Australian service centres after the mining boom, and a shortage of school leavers taking on auto electric and mechanic apprenticeships, had opened up a skills shortfall in the industry.

“We’ve had a skills shortage [in the automotive servicing industry] for at least 10 years, if not more,” he said. “There’s almost a constant skills shortage, so we’re not saying that overseas workers should be banned from Australia.

“We’re just saying that we need to be confident the equivalence is right – somebody coming in has got the equivalent skills and knowledge and, probably more importantly, someone has the English language and literacy sufficient for them to work safely in an automotive workshop.”

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