Resources firms struggle to compete without 457 visa workers

The WA resources sector’s use of 457 visa workers has caused controversy, but managers of smaller companies say they are necessary for their businesses to stay competitive. Cortlan Bennett/AAP

Unrealistic pay demands from Australian workers and a lack of skilled workers have led smaller West Australian resource firms to use 457 visas to fill skill gaps, according to Edith Cowan University (ECU) research.

Without using the visa, small firms could not compete with majors in attracting workers and getting them to stay.

Researchers from ECU’s Centre for Innovative Practice interviewed 10 managers from smaller resource industry firms and 20 workers on 457 visas to investigate how and why the visas were used in the sector.

They found that while most workers at non-major firms were Australian citizens, the strong demand for skills in WA leaves smaller companies unable to meet the inflated salary expectations of domestic workers.

“That’s part of the problem in smaller firms - they don’t have the resources, they can’t compete in the same way,” said the report’s lead author Rowena Barrett.

“So there might be a couple of people with the rights skills, they just don’t want to work for them.”

Despite wide advertising, firms struggled to find skilled workers. Managers reported spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising and receiving few responses.

“What we found was that these firms couldn’t get Australians to do the jobs,” Professor Barrett said.

“So it’s not as though a migrant worker worker was displacing an Australian worker, they just weren’t available.”

Several managers complained that high wages in the north-west of the state had left less-experienced workers expecting salaries appropriate for a worker with 20 years’ experience.

“We find people have grown with the boom and they have all of a sudden become prima donnas and they only work for these high wages,” said an engineering firm manager quoted in the report.

Managers also said domestic workers were unreliable and prone to switch jobs if they were offered even marginally higher wages, which hurt firm growth and made meeting contractual obligations difficult.

Professor Barrett said that the sector’s use of the 457 visa and the workers on it had been unduly pulled into the larger debate over immigration.

“They are made to feel uncomfortable, but they are just filling a need. They’ve been employed by business. And for businesses as well it makes employers stand back and ask, ‘Is this the right thing to do, or not?’ when really, they’re just doing business.”

While the 457 visa was likely to be expanded under the Coalition government, she said care should be taken that it did not damage smaller firms’ ability to compete by increasing their costs, or the costs to the workers themselves.

“They’re not a cash cow… They pay taxes, just like everyone else does. They shouldn’t be used as pawns of government.”