Australian maritime workers have hailed a high court victory they say will protect local jobs on offshore oil and gas projects and curb the potential exploitation of foreign workers.
The high court on Wednesday unanimously ruled against the federal government’s decision to exempt workers on vessels in the offshore oil and gas industry from visa requirements.
Unions argued the move provided an incentive for companies to hire foreigners for cheaper wages and undercut safety standards and conditions.
The court found the immigration minister had exceeded his authority by exercising unrestrained powers.
The decision means the workers will need visas to which Australian pay and conditions apply.
Slater and Gordon lawyer Kathryn Presdee said foreigners hired by international shipping firms would not have been covered by Australia’s Fair Work Act. “It’s not just about exploitation, it’s a huge safety issue,” she said.
Presdee said the legal issue arose after the government redefined Australia’s migration zone as part of the Pacific Solution. “Thousands of islands were removed and the migration zone was brought back to the shoreline to limit areas that could be landed upon or entered and then legitimately used for claims of asylum,” Presdee said. “This created a grey area for workers in the offshore resources industry because the minister began exercising an executive power to exempt companies from obtaining visas for their employees, because they technically didn’t need to enter Australian territory to work on offshore workplaces.”
Presdee said the minister’s decision to exempt offshore resource companies from the visa requirement had subverted the Migration Act and incentivised the hiring of overseas workers. “We welcome the high court of Australia’s decision today which confirmed the minister’s exercise of power in this instance was invalid and effectively overriding the will of parliament.”
Maritime Union of Australia spokesman Will Tracey described the employment minister, Michaelia Cash, as the government’s “chief job destroyer”.
“It’s disappointing this government continues to attack the jobs of Australian workers in the most lucrative industry in the country – offshore oil and gas industry,” he told reporters, outside the court.
Australian Maritime Officers Union spokesman Tim Higgs said the government had massively overreached and the ruling would help preserve proper wages and conditions.
In a statement on Wednesday, Dutton said the decision was disappointing.
“Following the high court ruling, workers on these vessels will now have to apply for and gain a visa before they can work within the offshore resource sector,” he said. “This will add red tape, add costs to industry and reduce the competitiveness of what is one of Australia’s biggest export earners.”
Dutton blamed Labor for changing the law in 2013 so workers on offshore oil and gas vessels required visas, and said it had done so “at the behest of the militant Maritime Union”.