Review: Time and Temporary Migration: The Case of Temporary Graduate Workers and Working Holiday Makers in Australia

Shanthi Robertson is an academic at the University of Western Sydney whose research focuses on immigration from a political and social perspective. She has written ‘Time and Temporary Migration: The Case of Temporary Graduate Workers and Working Holiday Makers‘, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

This is a complex article. I don’t think bureaucrats and policy-makers are the intended audience. However there are some important prompts and take aways for anyone interested in Australian immigration.

Before I get to these however, I want to take issue with how Robertson frames temporary graduate and working holiday visas.

“Because they are not politically positioned as part of labour migration policies, temporary graduate visas and working holiday visas serve to effectively ‘mask’ significant intakes of temporary workers” (p.2)

I don’t agree these visas are masked, what I take to imply a deliberate hiding. Temporary graduate visas are designed specifically as an opportunity for former international students to access the labour market and gain experience. I know this is mostly how they are considered in the bureaucracy.

Working Holiday visas are slightly different. They are not considered as labour visas, instead referred to as cultural experiences. However I’m not sure we should consider this ‘masking intakes of temporary workers’. Policy-makers and researchers are aware of this visa type and the fact they have significant labour market participation rates. While politicians rarely discuss working holiday makers, they rarely discuss any type of visa except for asylum claims and 457 visas. The decision to extend Working Holiday Maker visa eligibility to two years as an explicit decision made with reference to the labour market (as Robertson points out later on). Given the rate of participation in heavily visible service occupations in industries such as hospitality and retail, I don’t think this is an accurate definition.

Away from definitional squibbles, Robertson has many good points to make.

She reminds us that it is time, not space, which defines much of migration. A Chinese person on a two week holiday is not a migrant as we typically understand. But at any snapshot in time, there are tens of thousands of Chinese in Australia. It is the time period which is central to thinking about migrants.

Temporary graduates and working holiday makers are important categories as they are radically different from Australia’s traditional migration framework. They are not assumed to be on a path to citizenship, they are not permanent residents. As Robertson points out, these particular visa categories are massively under-researched.

She shows how young people are the target of these particular visa categories. Migrants who are young are typically more preferable to those who are older. This can be seen across visa categories, such as the age limit of permanent visas. Robertson says this attraction is “because they represent labour capacity without the ‘social burden’ associated with having dependent children or being elderly” (p.8).

While we disagree on whether these visas are framed as related to labour, I agree with Robertson that the attempt by officials to obscure the role of temporary visas is misplaced (my word inferred from her argument) (p.9). For too long, temporary migration has been promoted as migrants who come to Australia and then leave at a point in the future. In reality, this occurs less and less. Once in Australia, migrants – temporary migrants – often stay for long periods of time, an increasing number of whom become permanent residents. The thing is, policy-makers, researchers and bureaucrats all know this. The only people left out are a skeptical public. This is a long-term problem for closing the gap between the public and government on attitudes to immigration.

The crux of her thesis is two-fold. The primary consideration is how being ‘temporary’ restricts migrants. Skilled jobs can be withheld, forcing people into lower skilled and lower paid jobs. Her most compelling example:

“This can contribute to a kind of temporal, as well as a spatial, segregation and can also place these migrants within ‘night-time economies’ where they may be subject to particular kinds of violence or exploitation. For example, between 2008 and 2010, several violent attacks in Australia against Indian students and student-migrants took place as victims were either working at or commuting to late-night shift work in the taxi or fast food industries” (p.11)

Anyone who remembers this violence will be aware how serious it was. This analysis is important to better understand how and why it occurred.

A second point of interest is how longer time periods on temporary visas can be ignored despite the obvious implication: the longer someone is in Australia, the more likely they are to want to stay. The changing nature of Working Holiday Makers – those who now come explicitly for work and a transition to another visa – are ignored if we only imagine the visa to cater to “backpackers” and not “migrants”. Robertson is good here, but it did take me more than a couple of times to understand the nature and difference of what she terms “temporariness” and “extended temporariness” (p.13).

My main take away? Stop thinking about groups of migrants as homogeneous units according to their visa category. This is a complicated social and political (and economic) space where people live without the safety net of citizenship. This is mostly raised as a negative (the potential positives of temporary migration are noted in the conclusion). Of course, thinking about this to inform policy considerations is easier said than done as decision-makers work in black and white, a world devoid of gray.

Overall, while I think the article and research highlights the negatives at the expense of known benefits, it’s a very good take on where and how issues can occur in these visa programs. I would hazard a guess Robertson thinks these issues are more prevalent than I do but regardless of the scope, we need to be aware of them.

(In addition, Shanthi Robertson’s book is reviewed here and she is also on Twitter)

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