Opinion piece by Bob Birrell, published in The Herald Sun, 26 April 2021
With the recovery from the Covid recession, employer interests have been pressing the government for more migrants.
This lobbying is coming from representatives of employers such as the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, and from industry associations relying on low skilled workers, including the hospitality and horticulture industries.
Federal Parliament’s Joint Standing on Migration (or at least its Coalition members) has endorsed these concerns.
These lobbyists are responding to the collapse of Australia’s annual net overseas migration intake of around 250,000 since the pandemic began.
All assert the decline in overseas student enrolments is a major contributor to this collapse. All claim it is disrupting their access to both skilled and unskilled migrant workers.
They want the Commonwealth government to accelerate the inflow of students and other temporary migrants. As well, they want the abolition of restrictions on their employment, including removal of labour market testing, and the creation of new temporary visa categories which tie migrants to work within specific industries.
The Joint Standing Committee even recommends that places be reserved on flights to Australia and in quarantine facilities for skilled migrants.
Is this advocacy a prelude to major Coalition immigration initiatives? Let’s hope not, because if implemented the consequences will be ugly.
If Australia legislates to create visa which tie migrants to particular industries it will reverse one of the founding principles of our nation — that all residents should be employed on fair wages and conditions.
Also, do we want the overseas student industry to return to its pre-pandemic state, when universities acted like private corporations, maximising revenue from overseas students with scant regard for their pubic role of educating and training Australian students?
By 2018, overseas students made up 41 percent of all commencing students at Melbourne university. At Monash University it was 44 per cent.
It is true that most of Australia’s previous 250,000 NOM derived from temporary rather than permanent migrants. This is because far more temporary migrants were entering Australia than leaving each year.
The result was that by the beginning of the Covid emergency in March 2020 there were 1.5 million temporary migrants in Australia. About 541,000 of these were students at all education levels.
By late February 2021, the number of temporary migrants in Australia had fallen to the still huge number of 1.1 million, with much of the decline due to students. Their numbers had fallen to 441,000.
Do we really need more?
Let’s start with the claim that overseas students are essential to restore a flow of skilled migrants. This is a myth.
Most of the growth in university enrolments came in the business faculties, particularly accounting. These courses were dumbed down to accommodate overseas students with limited academic and English language skills. Only a minority have been able to secure professional level jobs in Australia.
For many, (especially those from the Indian Subcontinent) the value of an Australian degree was that it provided access to the Australian labour market while studying and, in time, a permanent residency.
The Australian government has facilitated this by granting two-year temporary graduate visas to all those graduating from an Australian university. This visa allows a two-year stay in Australia with full work rights.
By late February 2021 there were 102,765 of these temporary graduate visa holders in Australia, up from 96,819 in March 2020. They are in addition to the 441,000 students in Australia as of February 2021.
It will be good to see a recovery in overseas student enrolments. But if it is to occur, it should be on the basis of the quality of their training rather than the access it gives to the Australian labour market.
As to the lower skilled labour markets, a revival of temporary migrant flows, especially students, will boost the relevant workforce. But in doing so it will reinforce employers’ dependence on migrant labour.
The hospitality and horticulture industries illustrate the point. The working conditions and wages in these industries reflect this dependency. Employers do not need to offer jobs attractive to domestic workers.
The tied visa proposals from these industries will make this situation worse. The Restaurant and Catering Industry Association wants a special visa which will limit employment to the hospitality industry.
The National Farmers Federation has for years advocated a similar visa that restricts recipients to work in horticulture. In other words, both want a conscripted workforce.
Governments and employers need to be reminded how contrary these arrangements are to our labour market traditions.
The focus of government should be to put the onus back on employers to make employment in these industries attractive to locals. If this means that coffee or garlic costs a bit more, or the jobs are automated as with robot baristas, then so be it.
Bob Birrell is the Head of the Australian Population Research Institute