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The Gillard and Hanson accord on 457 visas is a dangerous development

By Andrew Bartlett - posted Wednesday, 20 March 2013


The fact that Pauline Hanson has come out in support of Prime Minister Gillard's pledge to "put Aussie workers first" starkly demonstrates the dangerous ground that the PM and a few trade unions have ventured onto with their calculated attack against skilled migrant workers. The Prime Minister's pledge will have little functional impact beyond a bit more red tape for employers, but it may have a major impact in distorting public perceptions of migrants.

The cry that migrants are "taking our jobs" is a myth with a long and ugly history in Australian political rhetoric. Ironically, out of all of the many visa categories, it is the 457 Visa that clearly provides the largest fiscal positive for the taxpayer and the most immediate stimulant effect for the local economy and flow on job creation. And that's without mentioning less easy to measure cultural positives and benefits to international ties at civil society level.

A rarely mentioned downside of the political obsession with the issue of asylum seekers who arrive by boat is that very little attention is paid to the substance of other immigration issues involving far greater numbers of people. A look through past media releases issued by Liberal, Labor and Greens immigration spokespeople shows a large majority of them deal with matters related to asylum seekers. When the media, politicians or the public talk of 'migration issues', it is often just a short-hand for 'boat people', even though this is a tiny proportion of the number of people who move into and out of Australia each year.

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Immigration policy is hugely important to the future of Australia, both socially and economically. Yet there is almost no continuing attention paid to any immigration issue other than asylum seekers in boats – who by definition fall outside our formal migration program. This makes it far more likely that decisions on other aspects of immigration policy, directly affecting many hundreds of thousands of people a year, will be ill informed, simplistic or vote-driven.

The current controversy over 457 Visas is a case in point. The latest 'crackdown' on these long-term temporary skilled workers just reinforces requirements that have been in place for some years. There will always be some employers who want to dodge the rules on workplace or migration law. When it comes to 457 Visas, the existing rules addressed the concern of employers who try to undercut Australian conditions and rates of pay.

If there are people breaking the rules, it makes much more sense to put energy into enforcing the existing rules rather than create another set of rules which just adds to the costs of the majority who are already doing the right thing for the benefit of our economy.

Hopefully everyone agrees that migrant workers shouldn't be exploited by employers. But the way to ensure migrant workers aren't exploited is to enforce existing laws, not by preventing the migrant from being able to work in the first place.

If you're concerned about heaps of foreigners filling low-paid jobs in Australia, relieving upward pressure on wages and crowding out the semi-skilled or unskilled, the 457 Visa is not a problem. Jobs under the 457 Visa are higher paid skilled jobs. There is no logical reason why an employer would go to the extra time and expense of bringing in overseas workers to fill these positions if adequately skilled locals were readily available at the same rate of pay.

The visa category which brings in over 100 000 people a year who work in temporary and low skilled jobs is the Working Holiday Visa – sometimes known as "the backpacker visa". Unlike the 457 Visa, the Working Holiday Visa is only open to younger people from selected countries –all of them wealthy and mostly European; (Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea being the exceptions). Immigration Department figures show that at 30 June 2012, there were 132 107 Working Holiday visa holders in Australia, compared to 68 310 primary applicants who were granted 457 Visas in that financial year.

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It is hard not to think that part of the reason for the attacks on 457 Visas is that a substantial proportion of these migrant workers are from countries such as India and the Philippines.

Many farmers are regularly reported saying they would not be able to get their crops gathered without backpacker labour, and the same applies for many coffee shops, restaurants and pubs in the cities. This type of labour is by definition more transient and less reliable than 457 Visas. People holding Working Holiday Visas can only work for any individual employer for a maximum of six months.

I am not suggesting we should do some sort of crack down on Working Holiday Visas – quite the opposite. I am simply trying to highlight that it is inconsistent to attack 457 Visas as potentially "taking Aussie worker's jobs" and undermining conditions and rates of pay, while ignoring the impact of Working Holiday labour, which requires no labour market test and mostly occurs in jobs which are lower paid and lower skilled – the less regulated area which is far more likely to have exploitation and reduce upward pressure on wages and conditions than 457 Visas do.

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A shorter version of this article was first published in the Australian Financial Review.



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About the Author

Andrew Bartlett has been active in politics for over 20 years, including as a Queensland Senator from 1997-2008. He graduated from University of Queensland with a degree in social work and has been involved in a wide range of community organisations and issues, including human rights, housing, immigration, Indigneous affairs, environment, animal rights and multiculturalism. He is a member of National Forum. He blogs at Bartlett's Blog.

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