THE government is being urged to push big resource projects into buying more Australian steel and components in return for approving their applications to import foreign workers under Enterprise Migration Agreements.
The controversial proposal to link EMAs with procurement policy is being considered by the backbench committee set up after a caucus and union backlash to the granting of the first EMA to Gina Rinehart's $9.5 billion Roy Hill mining project.
The plan was put to the committee by the steel industry body the Australian Steel Institute. Its chief executive, Don McDonald, said the approval process for an EMA gave the government ''a chance to ask these companies the hard questions … to really negotiate to make absolutely sure Australian companies are getting as much work as possible.''
Mr McDonald said he believed this could occur without breaching Australia's trade obligations.
MPs and unions were originally worried that Australian workers would not get a fair chance to apply for the jobs being offered to short-term foreign workers under EMAs, which are available only to projects worth more than $2 billion.
The MPs committee, set up in May to avoid a full caucus revolt on the issue, is also considering making it compulsory for all companies seeking to bring in workers under an EMA to advertise positions on the federal government's new ''jobs board''.
With another three EMAs now being considered by the Department of Immigration, the backbenchers will soon make recommendations to cabinet's productivity committee, which is overseeing their approval and implementation.
Australian companies' share of contracts offered by the big companies is already being considered by a separate taskforce on manufacturing, set up by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, last year after BlueScope Steel announced job losses.
That process is likely to result in the government bringing down another ''innovation statement'' later this year.
The Steel Institute complained last year that big projects were sourcing as little as 10 per cent of their steel from Australia. But Mrs Rinehart wrote recently that of $1.3 billion spent on Roy Hill so far, more than 83 per cent has gone to West Australian or Australian companies.
One of the companies being considered for an EMA is the multinational construction company Bechtel, which is seeking to import workers for three LNG plants in Queensland.
The Electrical Trades Union is threatening to take the company to the Federal Court over a dispute relating to asbestos on a work site.
EMAs are confidential ''deeds of agreement'', available to companies which intend to have a peak workforce at at least 1500. They act as an upfront guarantee for a capped number of temporary foreign workers to be brought in, if Australian workers cannot be found.