We all benefit from having migrant workers

Over the past few years, migrant workers have become the default political solution for policy problems.

Not enough jobs? That’s because foreigners are stealing them. Wages aren’t going up? That’s because foreigners drag them down. Graduates aren’t finding positions? That’s because skilled worker visas are being given out too easily.

Maybe there is something to these answers. They certainly are potent in pockets of Australian society that would rather blame outsiders than demand that their government create new jobs, enforce or lift the minimum wage, improve work conditions and training, and mediate skills transfers from industries that are contracting, such as mining and coal-based power.

The truth is that 457 visa holders take up less than 1.2 per cent of the Australian labour force. Their numbers are falling, in part due to a weakening economy. It makes little sense to scaffold an entire political argument around them, unless there are dividends to be made at the ballot box.

What does not get said loudly enough is that we all benefit from having migrant workers. Peter Mares, veteran journalist and author of Not Quite Australian, points out that 457 visa holders make business viable and create jobs (such as in rural abbatoirs), fill health care positions in regional areas, spend money on Australian businesses, and improve the overall budget position due to the significant income tax they pay. Paying taxes, by the way, does not give them access to Centrelink and Medicare.

Despite protectionism gaining traction over the past couple years, it is unreasonable and impractical to allow movement of capital, goods and services, yet control labour mobility. Migrants are deep in the economic engine of the developed world. Extracting them comes at a cost and introduces uncertainty, especially in primary industries. This would have flow-on effects on local and national economies.

After the Brexit referendum, only 67 per cent of labour demand in the UK horticultural sector was met, a 30 per cent drop on the second quarter. A similar shortage may hit California farmers hard as the Trump administration continues to crack down on immigration.

The response from US tech companies and universities to the executive order against visa-holders from seven Muslim-majority countries also reminds us that labour markets have long been global.

“The assumption that jobs occupied by a migrant worker could be taken by an Australian is seldom questioned. Yet completion rates for trade apprenticeships is 56.3 per cent. Only 40.6 per cent in food trades complete their training.”

Businesses and institutions have drawn workers from overseas not just as shortage fillers but as a matter of gaining competitive advantage. Where they can afford to sponsor foreign workers — and it looks like it will become more expensive to do so in Australia — it is their prerogative to recruit the best.

This should not be controversial. Perhaps it is only controversial in countries propped up by nostalgic exceptionalism, rather than anything more concrete like securely funded STEM and vocational education systems. The assumption that any and all jobs occupied by a migrant worker could be taken by an Australian is very seldom questioned. Yet completion rates for trade apprenticeships is 56.3 per cent. Only 40.6 per cent in food trades complete their training.

To tinker with migrant labour is to deflect from the deep inertia around local jobs and training. Politicians may well intone ‘Australians first’. But given that over the past couple decades they have defunded TAFEs and universities, while enabling industries to profit from a transactional foreign worker model, some skepticism is in order at the very least. At the most, we could ask for a less brittle, less anachronistic vision in a globalised economy than nationalism.

Source: Eureka Street. Article by Fatima Measham, a Eureka Street consulting editor.

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