What’s Missing: 457 visas and temporary migration in Australia

Peter Mares has an excellent piece published in Inside Story, ‘457s and temporary migration: the bigger picture‘. Mares is a unique public voice. His nuanced understanding of a broad range of immigration policies – from asylum seekers to students and 457s – leaves him very well placed to provide some much needed context around the recent debate about the 457 visa category. He comes not from a position of privilege, rigid ideology or vested interest but from a background of journalism, a pragmatic approach infused with an egalitarian bent.

Mares carefully unpacks how the 457 program came about. His vignette about Neville Roach and the ‘Roach Report’, recommending the introduction of the original 457 visa, is an Australian public policy story that should be more widely known. The misunderstanding of how and why immigration is more than just asylum policy in Australia would do well to be rectified by the promotion of this history. This dovetails into the crux of the debate. What is it that the 457 program should achieve?  This is a question oft-debated and unsettled after nearly two decades of substantial temporary migration flows. Mares writes;

From today’s perspective, though, what is most striking about the Roach Report is its attempt to ring-fence temporary business migration. According to Roach, the new arrangements were “not meant to apply to the traditional skilled trades or to professions like nursing and teaching.” Yet today, about one-in-every-five 457 visa holders has a trade qualification and nurses are one of the biggest professional groups recruited under the scheme. (Teachers on 457 visas are less common, but university lecturers are high on the list.)

Roach warned that temporary entry must not be seen “as an instrument for overcoming long-term labour market deficiencies.” Immigration minister Brendan O’Connor echoed that view recently when he asserted that the 457 visa program is only intended “to fill temporary skills shortages in some sectors and regions” and should be used “as a last resort.” But he was either misinformed or being disingenuous, for the 457 scheme has become something much bigger and more complex than Roach envisaged.

While Mares is too kind to offer former Minister O’Connor the excuse of misinformation, this points to the very real conflict of original intention and current practice. The ALP and the broader union movement may disapprove, but the 457 program is used increasingly as an the pathway to permanent residency, the first step in a ‘two-step’ migration process while filling long term deficiencies in the labour market. Mares alludes to this debate and it is well worth having. Unfortunately, this debate is brushed aside by the simplistic notion of ‘Australian jobs’. Former Minister O’Connor and former Prime Minister Gillard framed the most recent debate in a manner that meant any complexity was air-brushed away. Should long term deficiencies in the labour market be overcome by temporary and permanent migration? While Neville Roach and former Minister O’Connor may disagree with the proposition, there are both benefits and drawbacks from more fully embracing this policy. Can Australian skills and training alone provide for these deficiencies? Under current policy settings and those of the recent past, this is a very debatable position.

Immigration is not and will not become the main method to train and develop the Australian workforce as a whole. However recent evidence suggests a more nuanced understanding of temporary migration may highlight important contributions. As Mares points out, the recent survey of 457 visa holders demonstrates how about 75 per cent of migrants train or develop Australian workers in their job (disclosure: I helped write the research report released by the Migration Council Australia). This piece of evidence does not fit easily into the narrative of migrants stealing jobs. In niche occupations, this prevalence of on the job development may be a serious contribution. In budding industries, such as online retail and cloud technology, this could be the difference between early successes and failure. The survey does not present any answers, merely highlighting the need for a better understanding of enterprise level labour innovation. This is a complex debate which should be fostered.

The survey also pointed to what I see as a shift in the intention of migrants. Australia’s place in the world has shifted remarkably in the last decade. Currently about 40 per cent of 457 visa holders end up becoming permanent residents yet when asked in 2012, the planned intention to stay in Australia was a whopping 70 per cent. I see this shift directly as an impact of how Australia relative to the rest of the developed world has changed in the aftermath of the GFC. This increasing intention to remain in Australia has yet to be seized upon by the government or policy makers, stemming from the lack of understanding that economic forces play on migration trends, historically and globally. Bureaucrats writing legislation can only do so much to attract people. How can a government talk about being the only country in the developed world with low inflation, high growth, high employment and then not expect people globally to migrate – from 457s, to working holidays, to asylum seekers? To my mind, this is a complete contradiction, one that has yet to picked up in the media or in public discussions about immigration. Migration is driven by economic forces above anything else and Australia, as the government is well aware, is perhaps better placed relative to the rest of the world than at any previous point in our history.

This could be (but may not be) a once in a century opportunity to attract not only the most highly skilled workers in the globe but a generation of young potential from across the world. I believe the invitation of permanent residency should be made swiftly to those wishing to stay, allowing for a smooth transition to a socially cohesive community. While many public policy solutions are promoted in an attempt to induce further growth and prosperity, the influx of people is rarely debated seriously amongst elite opinion makers, at least publicly. Mares does not touch directly on this but obviously has grave concerns about how migrants integrate into society, especially those who are here ‘temporarily’, at least in name. He is right that they are often subject to a more restrictive set of obligations to the state, their employer and Australian citizens.

Mares’ piece is one of the few that has a decent understanding of the empirical side of 457 visas. He rightly calls out the lack of substance to claims of massive increases in particular geographic areas due to the volatility of small samples. Personally, one of the most disappointing features of the public debate since March this year has been the lack of understanding on these facts and figures. While the Department is rightly proud of the data it presents, it is by no means perfect or complete. Mares understands this data however his picture is incomplete.

This is highlighted nowhere better than the discussion on Cooks. Mares rightly points the finger at the poor state of vocational training for the industry and the renumeration provided by employers. Yet this is a more complex situation under the 457 visa program. In the financial year of 2012-13, it is almost certain that Cooks will be the number one occupation for the 457 visa program (the figures are not yet released). As Mares says, former Minister O’Connor repeatedly made reference to how the program has grown by generally lower skilled occupation and industries, such as cooks in the accommodation and food services industry (aka hospitality). Yet these recent figures are misleading if taken purely at face value. While technically the growth of cooks and chefs has been extreme (over 100 per cent growth in 2012-13 from 2011-12), other factors are at play.

None are more important than a series of changes to permanent migration. Prior to these changes, which kicked off in 2009-10, migrant cooks could generally be granted an independent permanent visa. This meant they did not have an employer but had full work rights. They did not show up in the 457 visa statistics either. For example, in 2007-08, a total of over 3,400 cooks were granted a permanent visa. While not all of these were independent, many were. In 2012-13, about 100 cooks will have been granted a permanent independent visa (source: SkillSelect  click reports, then occupation ceilings). I believe these migrants are now coming through the 457 visa program. With the increase in onshore visa grants (migrants already in Australia on temporary visas), migrant cooks are now being employed by Australian businesses, instead of being granted an independent skilled visa. To me, this is a positive development however not something you would have seen in the public discourse to date. These migrants have a job  in the occupation that they are trained to do. The anecdotes about migrants with MBAs driving taxis are a hold over from the period prior to the reforms. So while cooks and hospitality has been growing very strongly under the 457 visas, it is unknown if this has actually changed the real number of migrants working in the industry or if this is a consequence of much needed legislative reform.

This an example of a highly complex set of factors effecting the composition of the labour market and the size of the population amongst a host of others. Australians can understand nominal and real GDP figures and the vagaries of the foreign exchange market because of a sustained public education by public economic discourse. Yet our demographic future ensures that these questions of immigration will soon also become necessary to understand, how the ebb and flow of the economy and the intersection of different migration programs will play an increasing role in the coming decades.

Instead of the false question of migrants taking Australian jobs, public discussion about migration has a long way to come. What do we want our migration programs to achieve? Should migrants be used to fill long term labour market deficiencies? What protections should migrants have under the law? How should temporary migrants be integrated into Australian society, if at all? Should Australia ‘invest’ in a massive influx of migrants while we are in the position to be able to? What associated policies, such as physical and social infrastructure, is required as a complement to Australian immigration? These are the questions of a contemporary, mature immigration debate in Australia. Mares’ article, to his immense credit, underscores how the conversation is still stuck in the past.

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