Australia said Friday it will allow a new mine to hire about 1,700 foreign workers to alleviate a labour shortage threatening the resources boom, in a move unions attacked as "sheer lunacy".
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the government's first Enterprise Migration Agreement had been granted to the US$9.3 billion Roy Hill iron ore mining project part-owned by the country's richest person Gina Rinehart.
Bowen said while the community justifiably wanted to ensure Australians had the first go at job opportunities presented by the mining boom, skilled migrants were critical to getting these projects off the ground.
"The government's first priority is always ensuring jobs for Australian workers, but there is a need for temporary workers to help keep our economy strong," Bowen said.
"With more than 8,000 workers required during the construction phase of the Roy Hill project, there simply aren't enough people in the local workforce to get the job done."
Under the arrangement, Roy Hill will be able to sponsor up to 1,715 workers for the three-year construction phase for a temporary skilled worker visa, where they cannot find Australians to fill the positions.
All foreigners engaged on the project will receive the same wages and conditions as their Australian counterparts, and as part of the deal Roy Hill will provide up to 2,000 training places for Australians, Bowen added.
The government believes these types of agreements will address one of the biggest risks to many resources projects -- the inadequate supply of labour and skills in the short-term construction phase.
But union figures attacked the plan, which they said would hurt local workers.
"Frankly, I just can't get my head around what political genius thought this was a good idea," the Australian Workers Union's Paul Howes told the ABC.
"Who thought this is a great thing to do today? It is just sheer lunacy."
Australia is riding a mining boom driven by strong demand from Asia for coal, iron ore and gas, with capital expenditure in mineral and energy projects under construction standing at more than US$254 billion.