The Case for Work

Sometimes an outcome occurs in which nobody believes. Asylum seekers living in the community without the right to work is such an outcome.

Many people who have sought asylum in Australia cannot work. We don’t know the exact number at any one time except that it is high (above 19,000 in February 2014).

This arose in August 2012 as the Gillard government introduced a number of policy changes intended to slow the arrival of asylum seekers via boat. The idea is that the right to work is an attraction to people seeking asylum.This policy – removing the right to work – has been maintained by the Abbott government. Devoid of context, perhaps this belief can be sustained particularly for those at the margins. Yet this claim is completely unsupported by evidence (much like mandatory detention and unlike offshore processing).

To date, much of the campaign to reinstate the right to work for asylum seekers has centred around the negative impact this decision has on individual asylum seekers. Most calls for a change stem from traditional advocacy organisations. A good example is this brochure (.pdf) by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre which adopts a human rights approach. People are harmed by this policy. A more nuanced portrait is painted by Peter Mares in a recent edition of the Griffith Review yet the case remains the driving force of his argument is empathy with the individual asylum seeker.

While I believe in the fundamentals of this human rights approach, the campaign is unlikely to force change. Despite this, I will offer a short contribution. The nature of this campaign appears to lack an important coda. The mantra of “Work” has become the centrepiece of this government, from reintroducing ‘work for the dole’ to removing unemployment support for people under 30. Yet when we look to a most vulnerable group living in our society, this philosophy does not apply. This powerful contradiction embedded in Coalition policy across the two most visible portfolios has yet to fully resonate. The restriction on the right to work is deeply illiberal in an age of government where liberty is paramount.

Source: Star Network

Instead of this style of argument, two very specific charges should be levelled more forcefully at the status quo.

The first is the fiscal impact of denying work rights to asylum seekers. This includes the direct cost of welfare payments to support asylum seekers. Mares touches on this with a ‘rough estimate of over $100m per year’. Perhaps more importantly, indirect costs such as healthcare and the opportunity cost of current government expenditure, are likely a source of long-term fiscal drain. These fiscal costs are not insignificant in an era where fiscal surplus is fettishised. In any other policy area, this “quick win” would be offered up in the name balancing the budget.

Establishing the fiscal burden of this policy choice is critical for the second charge, being restricting the right to work does not deter people from seeking asylum. As we have seen, the Abbott government appears unconcerned about the short-term fiscal costs of its asylum policy in the name of deterrence. Yet their own policy logic supports the right to work. The attempted introduction of temporary protection visas was primarily justified as a deterrent but an important secondary consideration was the reintroduction of work rights. If the Coalition saw the right to work as a deterrent, Scott Morrison would not be seeking to introduce such a policy. In Australia, giving asylum seekers the right to work does not induce asylum claims (it may in other jurisdictions, particularly Europe).

These two rebuttals to current policy – combined – are likely more effective in changing the status quo. You will not find a single prominent business or industry group who support restricting the right to work for asylum seekers. Building an argument centred on fiscal concern allows a more direct engagement from industry on what is a social policy question. This occurred with the recent public debate on raising the dole by $50 per week. While ultimately unsuccessful, the Business Council of Australia brings a more effective voice for advocacy with a Coalition government than another salvo from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. A costed figure to the budget on removing the restriction on work and an emerging public debate on the policy places more pressure on the government to change this policy given they likely do not believe in it anyway. Much like Barack Obama has mostly stayed out of the U.S. immigration reform debate to provide space for more conservative supporters, there are important considerations for those who want to see an opportunity for asylum seekers to work in Australia.

By creating a false dichotomy of work rights and temporary visas, the government has failed to deliver basic support to those under its jurisdiction while increasing the fiscal burden on taxpayers. Parliament has considered, and rejected, temporary protection visas. Scott Morrison needs to find a different way forward. This need not be radical. The ALP will likely support anything outside of temporary visas.

Nobody supports the status quo and it is incumbent on governments to find solutions to policy problems.

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