Tim Harcourt | The Airport Economist

A government deal to allow 1700 people from overseas to work on the Roy Hill iron-ore project in Western Australia has angered union groups – however overseas workers have always been a part of Australia, and it is important for companies to get the people they want, with the skills they need.

A lack of the right kind of workers is a major headache for large projects, particularly in more remote areas. This is damaging for Australian trade, just at the time when we should be jumping at opportunities to increase our foreign earnings from mining.

The Roy Hill enterprise migration agreements – and another six which are still being considered – have caused uproar among those who claim the foreign workers will steal jobs from Australians despite evidence that East coast residents are unwilling to migrate to WA.

This is a real problem for the Pilbara and our economy. People on the East Coast will not willingly take these jobs, despite the ‘Gilly Effect’, named after Australia’s retiring cricket legend, Adam Gilchrist, who began his career in his native New South Wales but found much more success when he moved to Perth and started to play for Western Australia. Tens of thousands have followed his lead, and made it a success, but for many Sydneysiders, it is a leap too far.

At the moment miners face a shortfall of the right kind of people. Ideally we would find these workers in WA, but it has record low unemployment. There are some people in NSW willing to ‘do a Gilly’ and go west – but not enough. So the obvious answer is to take people from overseas who would jump at that opportunity if they get training in a specific field and a well-paid mining job.

Recently-released statistics from the ABS show Western Australia has clocked the fastest population growth of any state in Australia: 2.3% compared with 1.1% for New South Wales. Despite its geographic remoteness, by 2030 the population of Perth is expected to grow by 40%.

With a shortage of workers, the obvious answer is to look overseas – and migrants love WA. Over a third of the population of Perth either hold UK passports, or their parents do, and in the Pilbara 70% either have Irish or UK heritage. Many are already in Australia on 457 visas – and these are the people doing a Gilly. They can see the opportunity WA offers,” Tim Harcourt says. “If we have exhausted all the Australians who want these mining jobs, and there are migrants who want what Aussie firms are offering, then perhaps instead of wringing our hands over it, we should welcome these people who have so much to add to the Australian economy. If it is really a problem, why aren’t Australians following Gilly? We should protect workers’ rights – but let’s keeps Australia open in terms of trade and migration, which gives a boost to us all.

Tim Harcourt is the JW Nevile in Economics at the Australian School of Business, UNSW and author of The Airport Economist: www.timharcourt.com