The world has seen the deletion of many trade borders over the past 5 decades, with an ever-expanding global marketplace becoming the reality for many previously highly-protected industries.
The Australian infrastructure and building industries are no different; they’re agile, highly-volatile industries which adapt to change quickly, while also navigating a large amount of politically sensitive topics, such as jobs creation, protectionism, and technological progression.
The development of technology and its ongoing integration into labour-intensive industries has meant that employers and employees alike have taken advantage of easier transactions and trackability through digital platforms. Payment systems, and the process of invoicing (which has been nightmarishly hard because of the nature of the industry and its reliance on contractors and sole traders) are now able to be delivered easily online, such as .
Protectionism has fallen in and out of fashion through the years, more recently caving to a form of free-trade which aims to import labour and practices at lower costs. This has meant that the industry has begun the process of using cheaper, imported materials, rather than relying on traditionally quarried and locally manufactured products.
The reduction in costs, businesses argue, can allow for greater amounts of projects to be undertaken with greater overall productivity.
The import and export of goods and labour related to the construction industry is in flux.
Australian exports are traditionally more – iron ore, steel and timber, with imports to Australian shores being skewed significantly towards human capital (labour) and aggregates and plantation timbers.
The Forest For The Trees
Increasing globalisation brings with it the need for a code of practice which transcends national boundaries. This is because of the reliance on product which may not be ethically sourced, or in many cases, is unsustainable. Companies and contractors are slowly discovering the role of consumer preferences and ethics, and the effect that these preferences can have on the overall industry marketplace.
There has been a long-standing use of contract labour in the construction and infrastructure building industry, meaning that a particularly large project may be made up of several hundred individually contracted workers – that is, they are not centrally employed. This means that employees are often not on equal terms and salaries, and are often also having to navigate differences in technique, skill, languages, and work ethic.
A more modern challenge with the introduction of a global marketplace has also seen the , where workers from other nations can (more) freely apply to work in the building and construction trades in lieu of local workers. Often, these workers are employed on a lower wage, with a lessened tie to existing bodies such as workers’ unions and trade unions. This particular change in the industry has been fraught, and is the cause of much internal ingoing tension.
Problems arising from the increasingly global market are often able to be placed into two categories; ethical issues, and labour market issues. For example, ethical issues arise when suppliers and developers over-rely on cheaply produced imported materials to the detriment of local supply (see the AU manufacturing industry for how wrong this can go).
Labour market issues arise when labour hire companies neglect to balance the jobs for local employees with those given to working visa holders – creating tension on sites and projects, and creating tension within communities.
Once these tensions are disseminated to a wider audience, there is invariably a call for a return to protectionism – the very antithesis of a global marketplace. With careful consideration, planning, and due sensitivity, contractors, labour hire companies and developers can more successfully navigate the multiple issues of the current global economy, while remaining a sustainable, jobs-generating industry.