What is the labour force participation rate for secondary 457 visa holders?

Senate Estimates question BE14/118:

Senator Carr (L&CA 85) asked:

Senator KIM CARR: Are you able to provide me with a breakdown of the number of secondary 457 holders actively participating in the workforce?

Dr Southern: We would have to take that one on notice. I am not sure.

Answer:

The department does not record the number of secondary subclass 457 visa holders who are actively participating in the workforce.

The Department of Immigration should not be tasked with collecting the labour market status of partners of visa holders. Fair enough.

However the Department does have some information about this specific question which could (should?) have been provided to Senator Carr.

In 2012, a survey was commissioned on the 457 visa program. In this survey are a handful of questions about the partners of 457 visa holders. A quick summary:

Do you currently have a partner living with you in Australia? 67 per cent responded yes.

If yes, did this partner migrate with you? 68 per cent responded yes.

(Asked if yes to previous two questions) Does your partner work in a job, business or firm? 61 per cent responded yes.

If no, has your partner looked for work in the past four weeks? 32 per cent responded yes.

Using the first two questions, we can assume 45 per cent of 457 visa holders migrate with a partner. In the parlance of government, these people are called secondary migrants, a group which also includes children.

We know from this question that at the end of April 2014, there were about 110,000 primary visa holders and 89,000 secondary visa holders. 45 per cent of 110,000 is 49,500 partners, leaving about 39,500 children.

Assuming 49,500 partners migrated with the primary visa holder and were living in Australia in April 2014, we can use the third and fourth survey questions to estimate a very rough labour force participation rate.

Partners of 457 visa holders: 49,500

In work: 30,195 (61 per cent of 49,500)

Looking for work: 6,180 (32 per cent of 39 per cent of 49,500)

Not looking for work: 13,125 (68 per cent of 39 per cent of 49,500)

Labour force participation rate: 73 per cent (In Work plus Looking for work divided by total Partners).

Unemployment rate: (approximately) 17 per cent (Looking for work divided by Looking for work plus In work).

Caveats

First of all, people can reply to surveys in strange ways. This survey is asking one person (the primary visa holder) about a different person (their partner). While we can assume most people know their partners very well, the question about looking for work should be taken with a grain of salt. Maybe these migrants thought it would be good to say they were looking for work. Maybe the primary visa holder has no idea about their spouse.

Second, we are using percentages from one survey to infer about a different population of people. While the survey group from 2012 and migrants of 2014 are alike, they are not a perfect match. Thankfully the survey sample was very large meaning we don’t need to worry too much about serious bias but should keep this in mind particularly when we notice big shifts in trends.

Third, there is some uncertainty about the percentages relating to partners. The questions do not allow for the nuance of real life. Partners can migrate at the same time as the primary visa holder or at anytime afterwards. I don’t know what is the most common. I’d guess most people migrate together however I can think of a variety of reasons why this might not be so. The purpose of asking these questions – to sort out migrants from Australian born partners – is important however leaves us with a degree of uncertainty.

Fourth, we don’t know if the partner/children split of 49,500 / 39,500 is completely accurate as we’re using an assumption from the survey. From my experience, this sounds approximately correct it’s hard to nail down. The Department does not release the age of secondary visa holders so this is an assumption, not a fact.

Finally, this still does not answer Senator Carr’s question. He asked about secondary visa holders and this data only relates to partners. Of the 39,500 children – also secondary visa holders – we should assume at least some of them are working or are looking for work. We simply don’t know how many meaning we can’t fully answer Senator Carr’s question.

Despite these possible reasons for doubt, I think this information is useful. It provides a rough estimate for Senator Carr for his question. The labour force participation rate appears in the ballpark of what I consider reasonable. It is higher than the average for the Australian labour market because temporary migrants have no access to welfare support and probably need more income to live than an average household.

We can also assume about two thirds of partners are women as primary visa holders are two thirds male (we have no way to account for same-sex couples from the survey or other data released by the department). We know about half are from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Deducing from these two demographic details, a 17 per cent unemployment rate stands out. Non-english speaking female workers are more likely to be exploited in the labour market and have difficulty finding work. This certainly wasn’t the focus of Senator Carr’s question but I feel this is important to note.

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