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What Goes Around - Temporary Migrants - Scapegoat for Poor Training Record

21 Mar 2013

The University of Sydney Business School

By Dimitria Groutsis and Diane van den Broek

Migrant workers continue to be the scapegoat for Australia's economic and labour market woes, argue Dr Dimitria Groutsis and Dr Diane Van Den Broek.

Despite Australia's dependence on migrant workers, they continue to be the scapegoat for Australia's economic and labour market woes. In the last few weeks, both sides of politics have weighed in on the migration debate.

Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey pointed the finger at the Prime Minister's communications director John McTernan for being on a 457 visa, while in her recent visit to the Western suburbs of Sydney, Prime Minister Gillard announced the government's clamp down on temporary visa entrants to keep local jobs safe.

Both are examples of how migration is used as a political football. But fear mongering is nothing new.

Reflections on the recent past offer some telling insights. In the 1980s, Professor Blainey argued that a rise in immigration would increase competition in the labour market, which would drive down local wages and displace local labour.

Pauline Hanson successfully reignited this populist line of argument in the late 1990s when as member of the House of Representatives she famously targeted migrants from non-English speaking countries as taking Australian jobs.

But such arguments hold little weight. Numerous studies have concluded that the impact of migration is at worst neutral but overwhelmingly positive for the labour market and society more widely. Quite simply, migration leads to increasing demand for goods and services, an expansion of the labour market, with longer-term benefits of investment and skills acquisition for the receiving nation without cost. The short-term cost is borne by the migrant with little negative effect on the local labour force.

The present stoush is political jousting that really gets us nowhere except making headlines and highlighting how the migrant card gets tossed around as an easy target in an election year.

The Gillard Government is arguing that employers are overlooking Australian workers and instead drawing on foreign skilled workers to fill shortages in the labour market. Maybe this is the case in some instances, but the bigger failing is that Australian workers are not given adequate access to training. The result often bandied around is that not only are foreign workers taking Australian jobs but they are also driving down wages.

Again there are a number of problems with this line of argument. First, there is a shortage of skilled and qualified workers in particular areas like mining, the health and social services sectors and in some highly specialised areas of the banking and finance industry. The 457 visa sub-class has successfully expedited the entry of skilled migrants into the Australian labour market to address these gaps. The question that must be asked is: if not foreign workers, then who and how?

If we don't have the skills locally, then there have always been two options, train within or import from outside. If we are going to taint 457 visa workers then the only other option is to get serious about training and upskilling local labour.

That means supporting rather than destroying our TAFE system; resourcing our tertiary sector and targeting investment in training at reasonable cost to all Australians. The point is that skilled workers on 457 visas are not taking local jobs, rather they are filling chronic skills gaps that are of our own making.

There is no doubt that some employers do exploit temporary workers, but in the main the system has worked well since 2009 when Chris Evans rolled out a suite of reforms to the 457 visa requirements following the release of the Visa Subclass 457 Integrity Review (Deegan Report, 2008). The argument that wages are being driven down by these workers is not sustainable, although monitoring and compliance mechanisms of employers sponsoring workers on 457 visas could be. We need to ensure that exploitative employers are penalized and migrant workers given access to collective representation, rather than assuming that migrants are happy to take lower rates of pay or inferior conditions.

Migrants buffer the economy and migration in Australia has historically provided important solutions to short term skill shortages. The migrant arriving on temporary visa arrangements is no different. The 457 visa subclass has served as an important means to gain skilled workers fast when local labour is unavailable.

These workers continue to make a valuable contribution not only because of their readiness to contribute their job-ready skills but also in making the short-term transition, at their own cost often, to a new country. The reality is that skills gaps need to be addressed, if not through migration then the government of the day needs to present a solution via the adequate resourcing (rather than dismantling) of accessible training, with a focus on the immediate term.

Let's look at how we can grow local skills, rather than malign the migrant and taint 457 workers as stealing Aussie jobs and driving down wages. 




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