Immigration polucy

The Commonwealth is conducting a review of our migration system. Its brief is to “establish the core principles on which Australia's migration system will rest, and guide future reform. The strategy will focus on enhancing Australia's productivity”.

How to improve the migration system: let in more energetic young people

Tyler Reysenbach and Brendan Coates of the Grattan Institute present some practical suggestions for improving our migration system.

They note that queues are getting longer and applicants’ prospects of success are declining. Those are in no-one’s interests.

They suggest that we should continue to give priority to younger, skilled migrants for permanent visas, but to achieve this we should change the selection criteria. We should rely less on specified occupation descriptions, and rely more on the test of whether sponsoring employers are prepared to pay them a reasonably high wage. They suggest this threshold should be $85 000, or a lower $70 000 for those on temporary visas.

In line with the review’s focus on productivity they are unenthusiastic about encouraging immigrants to move to regions where there may be few employment opportunities. And they do not believe that immigrants should be encouraged to gain points through spending thousands of dollars on low-value courses.

Exploitation of migrant workers: wage theft or modern slavery?

The ABC recently ran a story about Inderjit, an Indian in Australia, who had studied business and hospitality on a student visa. She found work in a restaurant in non-metropolitan Victoria while she hoped to qualify for a skilled-worker visa. Her employer told her that until that visa arrived she was not eligible to be paid.

So she worked 20 hours a week for 7 months, without pay. She realized she was being exploited, but she was dependent on her employer for certification of her skills, and realized that if she walked out of the arrangement she could be immediately sent home. (4 minutes)

Sanmati Verma of the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), who appeared on the session, said that her situation is not atypical. (The only atypical aspect of Inderjit’s case is that her employer was eventually prosecuted under the Fair Work Act).

The HRLC has made a submission to a government review of our migration system, and on its website has a summary of the situation of immigrants on temporary visas, who can spend a decade waiting for a permanent migration opportunity. They note research by the Migrant Justice Institute revealing the finding that around three-quarters of migrant workers surveyed were paid less than the minimum wage. But only 9 percent took action to recover their wages. They write:

Temporary migrants must rely on the goodwill of their employers at various points in the immigration maze: to obtain certification of their skills, to accrue the points necessary in the cut-throat process of skilled migration, or to sponsor them for a limited range of employment-based visas.

But that goodwill is often absent.

The HRLC and other groups are calling not only for harsher penalties for offending employers, but also ways to ensure that action can be taken against such employers, including protection of workers against visa cancellation and a visa that allows migrants to remain in Australia to pursue a claim.

Exploitation of immigrants is not a recently-discovered phenomenon. The government has the report of the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce by Allan Fels and David Cousins. That taskforce was established in 2016 and it reported in 2019. To quote from its summary:

Wage exploitation of temporary migrants offends our national values of fairness. It harms not only the employees involved, but also the businesses which do the right thing. It has potential to undermine our national reputation as a place for international students to undertake their studies and may discourage working holiday makers from filling essential gaps in the agricultural workforce.

In response the Morrison government issued a statement (in the 2019 pre-election period), acknowledging the gravity of the problem, but without any assurances of concrete action.

While we wait for the government to crack down, there are small actions we all can take to combat the unfair and illegal exploitation of migrant workers. The United Workers Union is asking us to boycott a popular brand of broccoli, based on credible allegations of wage theft and mistreatment of workers on a farm where the broccoli is grown. The firm that supplies the broccoli to Coles and Woolworths claim they are unaware of the problem. That may be so, because the allegations are made against a labour-hire company at the beginning of the supply chain.

The policy questions this case raises are about the responsibility of the wholesaler, and indeed Coles and Woolworths, to inform themselves about the conditions under which produce is grown, and their responsibility to ethical suppliers who cannot compete against those who exploit workers. It also brings into question whether it is ethical for firms to use labour-hire firms as a substitute for direct employment. The employer-employee relationship carries long-established moral obligations, that are bypassed in labour hire.

If the government does manage to clean up horticulture and other industries where wage theft from immigrants is commonplace, we will have to pay a little more for our food and some other services. That will show up in the CPI. But should that be called “inflation” – an emotive term that sets off monetary authorities on a crusade of interest rate increases? Or should it simply be called a “price adjustment”, serving the economic function of bringing prices back into alignment with the cost of production?