The title stings: “Australia has outsourced migration policy to the private sector“. Reading the first paragraph, you immediately understand this is not something the authors are pleased about.
Joanna Howe and Alex Reilly’s argument is neatly summed up in their second paragraph:
“If there is a single lesson to be learnt from the revelations of rorting in the 457 visa system, it is that Australia’s migration programs need to be opened up to greater scrutiny, and that government, not the private sector should drive migration policy. A dedicated low skilled work visa with appropriate labour market testing could be a step in the right direction.”
The authors are academics at the Adelaide University Law School. It is a real positive to have engagement from different disciplines as immigration is an extremely varied subject area. Both the authors have written extensively about labour migration policy in Australia and know the legislation well.
However I do not believe this proposal would work without radical change in immigration policy, change unlikely to occur and damaging for employers and migrants alike.
A dedicated low skilled work visa will only work if the majority of migrants who currently perform low skilled work are precluded from doing so. This means scrapping the working holiday maker program and removing international students right to work.
Why would this be required?
Simply introducing a low-skilled visa program would mean employers have two options to fill a vacant job. They can either hire a working holiday maker or international student, without any permission required from the immigration department. This is just like hiring any other worker. This option – easy and cheap – will be heavily preferred to engaging with a low-skilled migration program.
We already have evidence for this. Australia has a low-skilled visa called the Seasonal Worker Program for the horticultural industry. However compared to its New Zealand cousin, it is poorly used because horticulturalists do not like engaging with multiple government departments and tend to hire people on working holiday visas. The Seasonal Worker Program has attracted a total of under 5000 visas over four years. In comparison, the New Zealand program attracts about 8000 per year.
There are also international examples. The U.S. has a low-skilled visa program (H2A and H2B) which is massively underutilised because of the supply of undocumented migrants. It is cheaper and easier to hire these undocumented migrants than engage with the government run programs.
So if a low-skilled migration program is to be effective, policy would need to push employers to use it. This means the elimination of working holiday and the right to work of international students, or at a minimum, massive restrictions on both cohorts of migrants. Otherwise it will simply be another visa program, heavily ignored because regulatory burdens would be high relative to other available options.
Should we scrap work rights for international students and get rid of working holiday makers?
I’d argue no. By removing students work rights, the incidence of illegal work will sky rocket. This is very hard to police and protecting students against exploitation (already difficult compared to the average low skilled worker) will become impossible.
The case for keeping working holiday makers is perhaps slightly weaker but still a strong one in net terms. Withdrawing from working holiday maker agreements would see the ability of young Australians to travel and work overseas nearly disappear. These agreements are bilateral. Stopping young Europeans travelling and working in Australia means stopping young Australians travelling and working in Europe.
Perhaps the authors intend for the low skilled visa to be simple to use, where both working holiday makers and students can be utilised (under a dual visa arrangement). However this ignores the ability of policy-makers to introduce a lightly regulated low skilled visa program with sufficient protections for migrants and Australian workers.
I’d argue this is an impossible goal to give the bureaucracy as it is too difficult to implement. Perhaps there are some policy changes available at the margins. But the central idea of a low-skilled visa with the necessary government oversight and regulation must be considered within the broader context of Australia’s immigration framework.
A last word on the title of the article (which is likely site editors, not authors). Yes, Australian migration policy has been partially outsourced to the private sector. About one in four permanent visas are now sponsored by employers. Many more temporary visas are sponsored by employers (about 125,000 in 2012-13). I believe – in the main – this is a tremendously beneficial policy shift. Like floating the dollar and removing tariffs, market forces can be utilised to generate positives, including filling gaps in the labour market.
While there are some issues around wages, working conditions and pathways to permanent residency, I continue to believe they are at the margins. Instead of radical policy shifts to address these problems, a functional, well-funded enforcement system should be better imagined and implemented. Given this will be critical to any future low-skilled visa program regardless of other policy decisions, this should be a focus for government and bureaucrats moving forward. This is likely cheaper and easier than introducing a new visa which very few employers will end up using.