Should Australia rely less on a migrant workforce?

The Federal Government’s recent forecast suggests immigration will drop by 30 and 85 per cent in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 financial years, respectively. Members of Parliament from both sides of the aisle see this as an opportunity to demand a complete overhaul of Australia’s approach to the migrant workforce.

United yet divided

Labour Senator Kristina Keneally argues Australians must “get a fair go and a first go at jobs” during the economic recovery. She proposed reducing the migrant workforce to ensure Australians can find employment as the country is grappling with 6.2 per cent unemployment. She acknowledged temporary workers are essential to the Australian economy. However, “Governments of all stripes have relied on high levels of migration to boost the population to fuel economic growth. Arguably, at times this has been a lazy approach,” she said.

Concurrently, Coalition MPs advocate for a doubling of international students and temporary visas to assist the recovering $36 billion education sector which remains Australia’s third-largest export behind iron ore and coal. While there is an apparent bipartisan momentum to alter our immigration policy, it is also the point where Canberra’s co-operative spirit runs dry.

Cabinet also weighed in on the issue in the form of Immigration Minister Alan Trudge who defended the current framework originally implemented by the previous Immigration Minster and sitting Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In his statement, the Minister said: “We have always been very, very careful to prioritise Australians and Australian jobs”. According to Mr Trudge, Australians have been enjoying priority since Mr Morrison replaced the previous Temporary Work visa (subclass 457) with the Temporary Skill Shortage visa (TSS). 


Loopholes and exemptions

The principal aim of the TSS is to direct foreign labour to regional areas where no qualified Australian is available. Employers must advertise available positions locally, in English, and must state the total remuneration if the amount is lower than $96,000. It is designed to be a careful balancing act between having to go through the expensive process of relocating Australians from cities and other states, but it is not without fault.

There have been reports of employers defeating the purpose of the TSS by setting unreasonable experience requirements to hire cheap labour. The TSS does not prescribe any evidentiary requirement on employers; the market regulates itself in an open season fashion. Moreover, there is a catch-all exemption, as the requirements under the TSS do not apply if it is “in conflict with Australia’s international trade obligations”. Translated to English, this means individuals can apply for an exemption if they have been working in the nominated occupation for 2 years on a full-time basis and are citizens of a WTO signatory country, most notably: 

  • China
  • Japan
  • Mexico
  • Thailand
  • Canada
  • South Korea
  • Vietnam
  • Singapore


The migrant workforce

The largest group of temporary workers consist of New Zealanders who come to Australia on Special Category visas (subclass 444) under the Trans-Tasman Agreement. The next three largest groups are from the United Kingdom, India, and the Philippines. While our friends across the Tasman Sea are free to work and live in the country indefinitely, individuals from other nations are more restricted. Student visa (subclass 500) holders are limited to 40 hours of work per fortnight, and working holidaymakers (subclass 417) can only work with an employer for 6 months. Other visa holders largely consist of entertainers, postgraduate workers, cultural and religious representatives. 

From an economics standpoint, migrants do not place a burden on taxpayer funds as they are ineligible for government services. Additionally, they stimulate the Australian economy through taxes and discretionary spending. The two states which host most temporary workers, New South Wales and Victoria, actually had the lowest rates of unemployment before the pandemic.

On the other hand, criticisms of relying on a constant influx of labour point to the majority of migrants working in low skill jobs. The Australian Labour Party argues young people are not given a fair chance to join the workforce because they have to compete with temporary workers. Further, there have been a handful of reports of migrants receiving substantially less pay for the same work which highlights the need for stricter regulatory oversight to prevent exploitation and the suppression of wages.


No resolution in sight

The issue is not necessarily with migrants themselves, but Canberra’s indecision on deciding what role migration should play in the country’s future. Should we be only allowing highly skilled individuals to work in the country? Or should we allow people to take on low skilled jobs, only integrating into our society after taking on our values and culture?

The status quo will remain in place for some time, as the above questions are unlikely to be answered in the foreseeable future. Quoting from Mr Morrison’s immigration campaign, there is one crucial question remaining for people abroad too: where the bloody hell are you?


Need help with your Visa?

Call    1300 066 267 to book a free consultation with No Borders Migration Agents

Book a free consultation today and let us help you find a way forward.