New report: More support to learn English

A report I authored, Putting language in place: improving the Adult Migrant English Program, was released today by the Centre for Policy Development. The report argues for a host of policy and program adjustments to the Adult Migrant English Program, to better equip the program to teach English. The Adult Migrant English Program is Australia’s premier settlement program, teaching English to tens of thousands of people each year.

The report was mostly written in late 2019, or ‘pre-COVID’ as I like to recall. Basically, there are lots of migrants in Australia who are going to live here for the rest of their lives and English proficiency is very important for settlement. To improve average English ability for new migrants, the report argues for greater investment in teaching English to support students. The civic, social, and economic benefits of speaking English are extraordinarily high. I’m someone who firmly believes we should do as much as possible to help people learn English, without resorting to punitive measures as English is good for everyone—new migrants and existing Australians alike.

It turns out we’re a bit behind the news. Minister Tudge announced just last week substantial changes to the Adult Migrant English Program. In his speech, he said “From today, this means that any permanent resident or citizen who doesn’t yet have functional English – that is, the basic language skills to enable participation in society – will be able to attend classes free of charge until they acquire this language capability.”

This is a major change. Previously, the number of hours a person could attend classes were capped and there was a time-limit of 5 years to participate in the program. Open-ended English teaching support for anyone who does not have proficiency is a giant step in the right direction.

This is a very welcome policy shift to be applauded. The COVID-recession is going to hit people with poor English proficiency harder than those who speak English fluently or with a high proficiency. More support at this time will hopefully buffer this shock and improve long-term outcomes. I’d like to hope that our report, provided in draft to the Department of Home Affairs towards the end of 2019 and a revised version earlier this year, played a small role in influencing this decision.

In addition to providing English support on a ‘needs-basis’, the CPD report recommends a number of changes to help the program better support migrant learn English. These include:

  • Funding coordinators to better facilitate a local ‘place-based’ approach, allowing better practical English learning.
  • Expand the courses blended with employment, particularly the Settlement Language Pathways for Employment and Training.
  • Pilot delivery of English support on large worksites, working with the Construction sector to identify major projects.
  • Subsidise and provide free access to existing online teaching clients.

Minister Tudge is to be commended for this announcement, particularly as this is a major change in direction from the Morrison government. As has been widely noted, the previous attempt at promoting English language was punitive via tougher citizenship criteria. This approach is much more suited to the current crisis and to support social cohesion into Australia’s future.

Looking back at the Committee to Advise on Australia’s Immigration Policies

In the lead up to the 1987 election, Prime Minister Hawke had promised a review of Australia’s immigration policies. The result was ‘the Committee to Advise on Australia’s Immigration Policies’ (CAAIP), or the Fitzgerald Review, published the following year.

Stephen Fitzgerald (and other committee members) produced what is perhaps the most defining document for Australian immigration policy in the period proceeding the post-world war two era. The report reads like an historical artefact—not because of the ideas within it but due to its style: eminently readable, dissenting from the worldview of the government of the day, and informed by deep expertise. I’ve been re-reading the report for a project I’m working on and, looking back, two aspects are particularly striking.

The first is the executive summary for Chapter One of the report. It’s not that hard to imagine this having been written in recent years instead of 1988:

Central Issues in Immigration Reform

Immigration, worldwide, is under pressure. At present, Australia’s immigration policies are not managing the increasing demand. Without immediate reform, current selection mechanisms will deliver many tens of thousands of immigrants more than the planned immigration program.

Problems with current immigration policies are not limited to the numbers. Widespread mistrust and failing consensus threaten community support of immigration. The program is not identified in the public mind with the national interest, and must be given a convincing rationale.

Selection methods need a sharper economic focus, for the public to be convinced that the program is in Australia’s interests. Without it, the core principles of current immigration policy, non-discrimination, and family immigration plus the need for opportunities for non-English speakers, are clearly at risk.

Research commissioned by the Committee indicates that the skills profile of some groups of immigrants has fallen. Improving the skills level of immigrants is critical if immigration is to contribute to enhanced economic performance and improvements in living standards in the longer term.

Many Australians are not convinced that immigrants are making a commitment to their new country. Inevitable changes to their society, brought by immigration, trouble them. Poor rates for the taking up of citizenship disturb them.

The status of citizenship is seriously undervalued. One million immigrants have declined to take it. Citizenship should reflect a commitment to Australia and its institutions and principles.

Immigration must be a two-way commitment between the immigrant and Australian society. Key Australian principles and institutions must have the support of the immigrant, and citizenship must be a watershed in the immigrant experience.

Government should move to restrict the non-survival benefits and privileges available to non-citizens. Non-citizens should not be able to sponsor immigrants, except in certain compassionate circumstances.

Reading this, I’m struck by the similarities of language and form which shape public debate on immigration today, compared to the 1980s. There is a similarity also to the nature of the issues being discussed. I find this extremely helpful in thinking through debates about policy direction today as it shows there is often little which has not been considered in great detail previously.

Second, and perhaps more relevant to our times, is to reflect on the lasting influence of the Review. In a research thesis from 1990, Heather Clauser wrote about the Fitzgerald report:

Little wonder the Labor government was dismayed when it delivered this offspring bearing so many of the hallmarks of the opposing political Right’s ideology… How readily could a moderately socialist government endorse the denial of welfare to non-citizens, the deliberate disengagement from a refugee obligation, the subordination of humanitarian immigration to economic interests, the virtual repudiation of multiculturalism, the denunciation of its own bureaucracy, and a compelling prescription for a nationalism redolent of the now-discredited attitude of assimilation (pp. 48-49)

Famously, the Hawke Government was decidedly lukewarm on the report, and many of the core recommendations were essentially ignored in the short-term. In 1990 is was indeed difficult to imagine many of these recommendations being introduced by the Hawke Government. But fast forward more than 30 years later and let us re-examine what has happened to immigration policy since:

  • Denial of welfare to non-citizens: Just under two million people on a temporary visas are denied access to welfare, while those granted a permanent visas are now subjected to a four year waiting period for some types of welfare, such as unemployment benefits. This waiting period was first introduced by Paul Keating in the 1993 Budget (the period was six months). This has become one of the defining debates for the COVID-related welfare debate.
  • The deliberate disengagement from a refugee obligation: I feel this does not need additional analysis for Australian audiences, noting the bipartisan movement towards more hardline asylum policy.
  • The subordination of humanitarian immigration to economic interests: From 1984 to 2000, humanitarian visas accounted for ~15 per cent of all permanent visas granted, while from 2000 onwards, this has declined to ~10 per cent.
  • The virtual repudiation of multiculturalism: Judged by public rhetoric from political leaders and symbols, this has not occurred across the board. But a very strong case can be made that multiculturalism as a ‘civic institutionalism’ and in relation to a coherent set of policies from the Commonwealth Government, is greatly diminished compared to the 1980s.
  • The denunciation of its own bureaucracy: Australia’s immigration bureaucracy has been reduced to a shell of its former self within the Department of Home Affairs [for the political environment, google “Australian Cabinet”; Ctrl-F “immigration” to see how this manifests itself]
  • A compelling prescription for a nationalism redolent of the now-discredited attitude of assimilation: This has largely not occurred in the political mainstream however there remain politicians who advocate a 1950s-style assimilation of recent migrants into Australian society.

There is a lot of noise from conservative politicians about the influence of the “Left” on migration policy making. Yet look at the record since the late 1980s. There is a clear move away from mainstream social-democratic and progressive policy on immigration, towards a more economic-centred, neo-liberal approach.

It would be surprising if immigration policy had not changed over such a long period of time. However both the similarities of the language and issues debated now and then, combined with the direction of policy shift is notable.

What is fascinating is that Stephen Fitzgerald was an adviser to Gough Whitlam. His firm belief in the importance of an expansive immigration program lead to him towards prioritising broad public support of immigration, and he argued this was best achieved by creating a stronger economic narrative. To this day, Australia continues to enjoy higher public support for immigration than many other OECD countries. Many point to the economic priorities of the approach however it is difficult to untangle public attitudes from asylum politics, government administration, and the general state of the labour market.

It’s hard to look back on documents like this and read about the headline public debates about immigration and Australian society. These were big conversations in the 1980s, which occurred with a frequency unlike anything today. Today, we see a much more narrow discussion on immigration policy, which ignores the hundreds of thousands of individual stories where policy-makers have an oversized effect.

Australian immigration policy and COVID-19

This weekend I had two pieces published concerning short-term immigration policy in response to COVID-19.

COVID-19 and the horticultural sector: addressing the pending labour supply shortfall (co-authored with Stephen Howes and published at the Development Policy Centre blog) argues Australia should extend visa validity for Pacific citizens in Australia in the horticultural industry.

Of viruses and visas (co-authored with Peter Mares and published at Inside Story) argues visa and welfare concessions are urgently required as a response to the public health emergency and ensuing economic environment.

On this front, the Australian Government is acting. As part of today’s announcement, about 310,000 permanent residents who are normally excluded from welfare support in their initial years in Australia, are now eligible. This is a good, positive sign from the Morrison Government in this period of crisis.

There is more to do around certainty for people who hold a temporary visa that expires in the next 6-12 months, as well as how many of these people will support themselves.

More agricultural visa by stealth

The Development Policy Centre has published analysis from me on a new employer agreement for temporary migrants in the horticultural industry. It is republished in full below.

For months during the second half of 2018, the Nationals and the agricultural industry agitated for the introduction of a stand-alone agricultural visa. While a formal proposal was never publicly put on the table, the Morrison government rejected the idea due to a combination of foreign policy and immigration policy concerns. In addition, research subsequently published showed that, when compared to other industries, few horticultural farms actually report having difficulty filling vacancies. Despite all this, a package of policy shifts has emerged since late 2018 resulting in a de facto agricultural visa, made up of different component parts.

In late 2018, an additional third year was made available to backpackers if they undertook six months work in designated regional areas in agricultural occupations. As Stephen Howes has written, this change by itself represents a serious threat to the success of the Seasonal Worker Programme, development outcomes across the Pacific, and worker welfare.

In addition, full-time and year-round jobs are now more likely to be addressed by programs outside either the Seasonal Worker Programme or Pacific Labour Scheme. A suite of Designated Area Migration Agreements was announced in recent months. These included occupations such as Agricultural and Horticultural Mobile Plant Operator and Mixed Crop and Livestock Farm Worker. The latter is the equivalent of a general farm hand according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Then, two days before Christmas last year, the Morrison government announced a new Horticultural Industry Labour Agreement, which utilises the Temporary Skill Shortage visa. This type of agreement allows employers to directly sponsor workers with a number of concessions to standard visa rules and regulations. For example, normally an employer cannot sponsor migrants to work as Irrigationists and Irrigationist Assistants, as these are considered insufficiently skilled occupations. However, this agreement permits those occupations (among others). The agreement also provides a special exemption allowing employers to pay workers a minimum of $48,510, 10 per cent below the typical salary threshold. There is also an English language proficiency concession and, uniquely for entry-level occupations in Australia, a pathway to permanent residency for workers. This is in stark contrast to both the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme, neither of which has access to a permanent residency pathway.

Perhaps the boldest policy tweak was the creation of new occupational codes by the Department of Home Affairs exclusively for the horticultural industry. Classifying occupations is meant to be a task undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Yet the Horticultural Industry Labour Agreement has created a new occupation, ‘Horticultural Section Manager’, with an entry-level classification (skill level 5). When you do a search of equivalent ABS entry-level occupations, there is not a single example with managerial responsibilities as part of the job description. It is easy to imagine how employment under this new code could displace veterans of the Seasonal Worker Programme who have progressed to become team leaders.

For the Pacific, this new approach represents a challenge. While some will argue that the financial costs of these agreements will lessen the effect on Pacific labour mobility programs, employers will be attracted to this option. Recruitment is open to any country, with employers attracted to tapping into well-developed recruitment supply chains in countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam. The provision of year-round work on a three or four year visa will also prove attractive, and a direct alternative to the Pacific Labour Scheme. Finally, the Department of Home Affairs is the approving agency instead of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment. While this may seem unimportant, the latter have traditionally had a more rigorous approach to approving employer sponsorship for hiring overseas migrants.

The one bright spot is the potential for this channel to act as a pathway for Pacific citizens to long-term residency outcomes in Australia. It may be the case that people can seek to transition from the Seasonal Worker Programme into this horticultural agreement, allowing family reunion in the process. This would address some of the increasing concerns about the ‘permanently temporary’ nature of existing Pacific labour mobility programs.

Clearly, the Australian Government is seeking to placate the agricultural and horticultural industries without resorting to the introduction of a new visa. This is the third immigration policy change in favour of horticultural employers since the Australian Government knocked back a formal agricultural visa. Judging by its public release two days before Christmas, this is policy administration by stealth, an attempt to circumvent debate over the direction and scope of Australian immigration policy. For example, this is the first instance I can recall of such extensive occupational concessions, combined with salary and English concessions, for employers to use the Temporary Skill Shortage visa. While there are some positives to mitigate worker exploitation, such as the link to permanent residency, it is difficult to see how this isn’t simply a reaction to industry and political lobbying instead of considered policy development in the public interest.

The new British immigration system: some initial thoughts from an Australian

Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit immigration system has just been announced. For politically astute reasons, Johnson has sold his system as the ‘Australian points-tested’ approach. This is done for rhetorical reasons, and is intended to signal the U.K. Government will have full control over who enters the United Kingdom. It is not done to copy Australia’s approach to immigration. John Howard’s catch-cry, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’, has migrated to the United Kingdom, albeit in different circumstances.

The most ‘Australian’ aspect of the new British approach is the insistence on speaking English. In Australia, you must be able to speak English to be granted a skilled visa (family members of applicants are excepted). For an Australian observer, it is striking that this is the part of the new system which British Labour appear most concerned by. This is worthy of some self-reflection. Looking at other aspects, it is rather ‘unAustralian’ to require the vast majority of new economic migrants to have a job offer. In Australia, the single biggest cohort of new economic permanent resident visas each year are awarded to people without a job offer. This is a stark difference to new British approach. The policy document references a small, unsponsored route for a select number of high-skilled individuals yet these people are the mainstay of Australian policy.

Regardless of why Johnson is introducing this new system, and whether it does replicate Australia accurately or not, I see a number of long-term policy issues for the new British approach based on Australian experience. These are just initial thoughts after reading the policy document, and do not touch on the biggest immediate challenge which will be the large transition costs as the labour market moves from one system to another.

  • A single national framework and no built-in concessions for employers outside of big cities

The policy document explicitly states the new approach will not have regional concessions for different parts of the United Kingdom. Yet in practice, where salaries, industries, and occupations differ, this is hard to achieve without some level of flexibility. The salary threshold, combined with the 20 points for the in-demand skilled occupations, will have disproportionate effects on non-urban employers.

In Australia, this has led to a two-decade carve out of regional interests, a combination of trying to nudge people to regional areas while also attempting to incentivise people not to move to large urban cities, such as Sydney and Melbourne. While there will be lots of employers in London immediately affected by the new immigration approach, employers reliant on EU migration outside of big cities will be, comparatively, much more affected. Over time, these pressures will most likely manifest in a series of new visa categories or concessions designed to funnel people into non-urban communities. I imagine some type of ‘regional’ bonus points will be tacked onto the approach as these issues become apparent.

One thing in particular to watch will be those areas in the ‘Red Wall’, in northern England, traditionally Labour voting but much more Conservative in 2019. If these areas are motivated by anti-migration sentiment, yet also are most negatively affected by changes to the immigration system, it will be interesting to see how they respond over the next 3-5 years as the effects of the changes work through local labour markets.

  • The ‘going rate’ income criteria for new migrants

The new British approach has a somewhat complicated approach to salary thresholds. Unfortunately, complicated regulatory approaches often mean malicious employers are able to use work within the system, with poor outcomes for workers. Employers had a big win with the revision of the salary threshold down from the initially proposed £30,000 to a minimum salary of £20,480. More points are available for higher salaries (above £23,040, and £25,600, respectively). This will mitigate the worst fears of British employers in the post-Brexit environment, while still pricing a decent share of jobs out of scope.

However, as in Australia, employers are also required to pay prospective new migrants in line with the market rate of pay for the occupation. This is known as the ‘going rate’ requirement (or the ‘market rate’ in Australia). So if the going rate is established at £30,000 for an occupation, then the new migrant will require a salary of £30,000, regardless of the minimum salary of £20,480.

However there important exemptions to this. The most prominent will be whether the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has determined if there is an occupational shortage in relation to the job being applied for, resulting in a 20 per cent reduction available for the ‘going rate’ salary threshold. So as above, if the going rate is £30,000 for a computer scientist and the MAC has determined computer scientists are in shortage, then the new migrant could be paid £24,000 (a 20 per cent reduction from £30,000) and receive a visa.

In Australia, this is strongly discouraged. Ensuring new skilled migrants are paid the going rate (market salary) is a key policy regulation, designed to prevent exploitation and undercutting of prevailing wage and conditions. Why? In a system where migrant employees are tied to their employers via sponsorship rules, the employer has significant power in their relationship. Allowing discounts in the market salary can exacerbate this power imbalance with broader enterprise and industrial level effects.

Perhaps supporters of the new British approach may say these demands pale in comparison to EU free movement as a whole. Yet I think we underestimate the effects of employer-employee relationships, particularly in the migration context if migrants are motivated by large economic gains through the act of migration. Allowing businesses and sponsors to reward new migrants at sub-market rates and, *and then*, tying new migrants to these employers is bound to have unintended and negative consequences, particularly in relation to incentivising bad faith employers to use the immigration system. This sets a dangerous precedent, particularly in low-margin, high-labour intensive industries (such as horticulture, retail, construction, tourism, accommodation). While perhaps not many occupations should be expected to be in shortage for these industries, labour markets have a funny way of manifesting themselves, such as the never-ending claims of shortages in relation to poorly paid care work.

  • Pushback from businesses to transition costs will result in reactive and ad-hoc policy ‘solutions’

Australia set out on a pathway to a skilled migration system in the mid-1990s. Skilled labour was congregating more prominently in urban areas, while simultaneously regional labour markets were losing their Australian-born populations in a greater number. In addition, the Howard Government (1996-2007) had a policy aversion to formal, low-skilled migration pathways, famously resisting Pacific countries for a decade over their push for Pacific citizens to work in Australian horticulture.

Yet the demographic, geographic, and economic changes transforming labour markets in Australia generated a strong push from employers in the labour market who missed out on the turn the skilled migration. Farmers, tourism, retail, and hospitality each sought various avenues to address their labour demand (noting the term ‘shortage’ should be used with an abundance of caution and not as a proxy for a failure to raise wages).

This resulted in a number of reactive policy decisions in response vested interests. Farmers won a carve out by enticing backpackers into fruit picking. The boom in international students resulted in many more young workers in urban industries characterised by excessive churn. The mining boom resulted in tighter labour markets as workers were attracted by high salaries and relatively straight forward entry occupations. By themselves, the extra migrants likely would not have had great effects. Yet in a policy framework devoid of careful consideration, regulation exacerbated employer-employee dynamics, resulting in structural exploitation. These tweaks and responses to vested interest lobbying were often not publicly debated and flew under the radar until the facts became apparent years later. There is already a hint of this in the new British system, with seasonal workers expanded from 2,500 to 10,000. The United Kingdom can expect a few more special carve outs along this line over the next few years.

The United Kingdom is different from Australia, especially with the effects of EU movement over the past decades. Yet as this unwinds, there will be significant pushback from employers seeking easier access across a number of geographic, occupational, and industry domains. Free movement meant employers often did not have to rely on occupation codes, salary thresholds, and qualifications of their prospective hires. Being untied to employers, EU workers were not artificially restricted in their labour mobility. This will change, bringing with it a different set of political economic norms. In Australia, small tweaks in policy direction by the administrative department or government of the day can have serious consequences and disruption. This won’t really matter to multinational firms, elite universities, and government sector employers, many of whom might actually see aspects of a more generous immigration framework. Yet many others will struggle to comply and adjust to the day-to-day of a more tightly managed migration system.

To finish, I think it’s worth reflecting on how this will, and won’t, change public debate in the United Kingdom. Immigration debates will continue in a post-Brexit United Kingdom. I imagine many of those who are not disposed to new migrants will not clearly see the effects of this new approach immediately. This will not meaningfully change the current population of migrants in the United Kingdom. Instead it will change the future composition of who comes to the United Kingdom and stays. This means those who believe migrants have caused and exacerbated social, economic and cultural change in the United Kingdom over the past 20-30 years, will not suddenly wake up in a new Britain as they are expecting. This, perhaps more than anything else, will have future effects on how governments will administer post-Brexit immigration policy.

(A note for any British readers, particularly those with small budgets to commission research. If you are after more information about the Australian experience, please get in touch. My contact details are here)

Submission to the new international development policy

This is my personal submission to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who are managing the Australian Government’s new international development policy. My submission focuses on Pacific labour mobility and migration.

Using any metric, Australia is among the world’s most prosperous countries. Yet many of our closest neighbours remain poor, geographically isolated and structurally excluded from the global economy. Allowing Pacific citizens who want to the right to live and work in Australia is the most powerful development policy lever Australia has direct, unilateral control over. The immediate and life changing gains in income by allowing Pacific citizens to live and work in Australia is incomparable to any other development outcome.

Migration and labour mobility for development address each of the factors listed as the impetus for the new development policy: security, stability, prosperity and resilience in the Indo-Pacific. The primary motivation is economic. At its most basic, individuals who work in Australia can earn an order of magnitude more than in their home countries, doing either the same occupation or occupations which do not exist in their home countries. Critically, the societal and security gains stemming from these economic gains are also significant.

The Australian Government is to be commended on the strong progress to date in this area over the past five years. Growth in the Seasonal Worker Program, as well as the introduction of the Pacific Labour Scheme, represent genuine progress for Australia’s development policies. This short submission will outline why migration and labour mobility should now become first-order priorities for development policy in Australia and how to overcome barriers to support more migration. I recommend changes to the policy framework governing temporary migration and the introduction of a permanent visa category for Pacific island citizens.

What does the evidence say?

The economic case for migration as a development tool is overwhelming. Clemens (2011) finds the gains to global GDP from the elimination of labour mobility barriers is in the order of 50-150% of global GDP. At an individual level, Clemens, Montenegro, Pritchett (2019) find in the United States, based on their study of 42 countries, the average income gain for each migrant is in the order of USD$13,700 per worker per year. This means, without advocating for the removal of Australia’s migration borders, even small reductions in the barriers to movement can generate significant economic gains.

In our region, McKenzie and Gibson (2013) found the New Zealand Recognised Seasonal Employer program was ‘one of the most effective development interventions for which rigorous evaluations are available.’ This was due to increases in household income, increases in subjective standards of living, increases in household spending, and qualitative responses from community leaders indicating broad support.

Importantly, the authors find these benefits pale in comparison to permanent residency options. McKenzie, Gibson, Rohorua, and Stillman (2018) find the net present value of winning a permanent residency outcome in New Zealand’s Pacific visa lottery is worth at least NZD$315,000 in lifetime income gains for the average participant. Permanent migration such as this relies on a development policy approach geared towards people, instead of place as the development occurs because of the location of the person.

In Australia, existing development policy gains are clearly apparent. Using World Bank survey data, Howes and Orton (2020) find the aggregate net earnings of Tongan migrants in the Seasonal Worker Program outweigh the income gains from trade and aid combined. Further, this finding excludes the significant remittance flows from Tongan-born people working in Australia as either long-term visa holders or Australian citizens.

Put simply, there is nothing comparable to the income gains on offer from additional Pacific migration to Australia. This demands a more rigorous approach to fostering more Pacific migration as part of Australia’s development policy approach.

Australia’s competitive advantage

Australia is a world-leader in the administration of immigration policy. In addition to the development gains on offer, Australia has a substantial competitive advantage in migration and labour mobility for development policy. No other country in the Indo-Pacific is willing or able to create the potential for tens of thousands of additional Pacific citizens to live and work in Australia. This competitive advantage stems from the following institutional factors:

  1. A robust and highly functional immigration policy framework
  2. An Australian society that is both open to immigration and highly cohesive
  3. Parts of the Australian labour market where there is significant demand for additional labour, at and above award pay and conditions.

No other country in the region boosts this combination–twined with an expansive approach to development policy. Migration generates stronger, deeper, more robust bonds between people and countries. Unlike development programs which rely on long-time periods and multiple stakeholders, the income earned by migrants is immediately and efficiently moved into household expenditure, often with a single middleman (a currency exchange operator, e.g. a bank). This largely mitigates opportunities for institutional misuse and corruption.

Addressing policy barriers to more Pacific migration

There are many barriers to Pacific migration to Australia. Due to space limitations, I will focus on the two major policy barriers which constitute decisions by the Australian Government. Unfortunately from the perspective of development policy, both of these barriers fall outside the purview of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Despite this, they remain the clearest barriers to whether or not migration can play a larger role in Australia’s future development policy.

Removing the 88-day work rule underpinning the second Working Holiday visa

Regional horticultural labour markets represent one of the best opportunities to generate more income for Pacific citizens. The labour market is dominated by entry level occupations, allowing people with no previous experience to quickly become effective. Importantly, there is no labour shortage in Australia’s horticultural labour market, this is a long-standing myth (Sherrell, 2019). Instead, backpackers under Australia’s working holiday programs crowd out other participants, as backpackers can access a second 12 month visa if they work for 88 days in regional horticultural businesses.

This has a number of significant effects. Backpackers are working primarily for an additional 12 months of residency in Australia, as opposed to income. This distorts the incentives for both employers and employees, leading to a corrosive effect on wages and conditions. Unlike backpackers, Pacific citizens under the Seasonal Worker Program are motivated by income, as opposed to residency. Unenforced labour market legislation has meant backpackers have become the first preference for many businesses operating in the industry. This is actively preventing a larger expansion of the Seasonal Worker Program, and distorting the income gains on offer for all employees.

The 88-day rule should be abolished, as employers have ready access to better regulated labour market programs to address workforce hiring. This would be the single biggest policy decision to promote Pacific labour mobility in Australia, generating massive and sustainable income gains for Pacific island citizens and their communities. 

No permanent pathway for Pacific citizens

The vast majority of Pacific citizens are excluded from Australia’s permanent visa categories. This is largely due to thresholds being too high in terms of education qualifications, work experience, and English language proficiency. However the goal of Australia’s skilled migration program is not to induce development opportunities.

With this in mind, a new standalone Pacific visa category should be created, specifically designed to foster development and Pacific relationships for Australia. A new permanent visa would slowly build a larger diaspora, prevent family separation, and remove the micromanagement of development-oriented visa programs (Howes 2019).

Both the United States (through the Green Card Lottery) and New Zealand (through the Pacific Access Category) have well established lottery systems promoting permanent residency. Australia should follow. A dedicated visa lottery system, with relevant criteria for employment and English proficiency, would help promote access for Pacific citizens to Australia for long-term residency.

While this concept falls well outside of existing traditions of Australian migration policy, there are strong arguments such a program would act as a foundation for improving the security, prosperity, resilience and stability of Pacific countries, as well as Australia’s relationship with Pacific people. It offers the prospect of a genuine Pacific step-up, demonstrating to Pacific countries social and cultural links are just as important as economic opportunities.

To mitigate against employer exploitation, any Pacific permanent visa program should not rely on a model of long-term employer sponsorship. Bonding migrants to employers can work in some settings yet this is not one of them as the power dynamics would be too skewed.

Addressing the risks to more Pacific migration

There are a number of risks with a deliberate expansion of Pacific migration opportunities driven by Australia’s development policies. Owing to space constraints, this section outlines two major risks.

Exploitation in Australia

Successful Pacific migration in Australia relies on well functioning labour markets. However there is substantial evidence that industries with appropriate entry level occupations for Pacific citizens, such as horticulture, retail, and hospitality, are wracked by structural worker exploitation. Unfortunately, even a small share of employers who seek to undermine wages and conditions are able to become price makers in the labour market, as in some instances, others employers cannot compete with de-facto higher labour costs. Structural exploitation undermines the development gains on offer and presents a fundamental threat to Australian immigration.

Even under the status quo, with strong growth rates under the SWP, the Australian Government must address inadequate enforcement capacity. In addition, given the imbalance in knowledge between Pacific citizens working in regional communities and potentially malicious employers, the Australian Government should consider the role of community advocates. These actors could help address concerns around accommodation and social isolation.

Negative effects in home communities and countries

Concerns about ‘brain drain’ have often been used as a handbrake on receiving country policy for fostering emigration from developing countries. Despite the fact many development countries actively seek emigration opportunities for the citizens, and despite the fact many individual willingness choose to migrate where possible, these concerns persist. As Edwards shows in a three-part literature review (2019a, 2019b, 2019c), brain drain concerns stem from a theoretical concept which is largely not supported by recent empirical evidence. While ‘brain drain’ can occur, most of the time, ‘brain gain’ is more likely to occur over the long-run due to institutional and diaspora effects. Given this, ‘brain drain’ should not be a primary consideration of Australian development policy.

A more robust approach would be to address concerns at the community level where negative outcomes can arise from emigration. The long-term disruption to families under existing approaches, such as the Pacific Labour Scheme, need to be carefully considered. It may be appropriate for people to have access to family reunion in these circumstances. With the introduction of a permanent Pacific category, it may be appropriate to abandon the Pacific Labour Scheme.

In addition, it may be appropriate to investigate the potential of Australian aid funding to support and act as a multiplier to earned remittances. A common criticism of remitted income is the lack of evidence pointing to investment outcomes (as opposed to consumption). While this most likely reflects the priorities of the receiving community, there may be an opportunity for Australian aid funding to provide support for overcoming a lack of scale for remitted income. Both indirect measures (e.g. a broader range of financial instruments) and direct measures (e.g. business investment) may be appropriate, depending on the context of the financial environment (International Fund for Agricultural Development and World Bank Group, 2015).

The role and scope of points-tested visas

Co-authored with Alan Gamlen, I have written a blog post for the COMPAS migration centre, based at Oxford University. The intended audience is British.

Australian immigration policy: The role and scope of points-tested visas

The ‘Australian-style points-based system’  has attracted a huge amount of attention in the UK debate on post-Brexit immigration policy. But how does the Australian system really work and is it something that could be easily replicated in the UK?

How do points-tested visas work in Australia?

Emerging first in Canada, points-tested visas select immigrants based on factors such as age, education, language ability, and work experience. Adopted in Australia in the 1970s, points-tested visas do not require an employer. Instead, people apply for the Skilled Independent visa or they can seek the approval of a state government and apply for one of a number of State nominated visas.

Points-tested visas in Australia work alongside occupation lists. This is how the Australian Government maintains their policy objective of selecting people with particular skills. Among the top occupations in recent years have been Software Programmers, Accountants, Registered Nurses, and Civil Engineers.

The minimum number of points for a visa is 65. It used to be the case that if someone had the minimum number of points, they would gain a visa. However a surge of demand in the mid-2000s created a lengthy application queue, with people waiting years to gain their visa.

This provoked a substantial administrative change and selection is now conducted via a ranked ordering process. The more points someone has, the more likely she is to gain a visa. At the moment, someone needs at least 80 points to gain a Skilled Independent visa. This has become a critical administrative tool to manage demand for points-tested visas.

A potential profile of someone who gains a points-tested visa is as follows: a 30 year old (30 points) Civil Engineer (eligible occupation), who has a ‘superior’ level of English (20 points), has four years of engineering work experience (5 points), has a Bachelor degree in engineering (15 points), and has no spouse (10 points). There are a number of other factors to gain points.

If invited to apply for a visa, people must pay an AUD$4,045 fee.

Are all Australian visas subject to a points-test?

No. Points-tested visas make up 63 per cent of permanent skilled visas and 43 per cent of all permanent visas granted each year in Australia (excluding humanitarian visas).

In 2019-20, there will be 68,000 points-tested visas available, out of approximately 108,000 permanent skilled visas. The remaining 40,000 permanent skilled visas require an employer and do not use the points-test. About half of those who gain a points-tested visa already live in Australia, mostly as international students or people holding temporary work permits.

In recent years, points-tested visas have been declining as a share of the overall visa mix. In 2018-19 for the first time in over two decades, the Australian Government substantially reduced the number of permanent visas available, from 190,000 to 160,000. Alongside spouse visas, points-tested visa categories were subject to the largest proportional cuts.

What are the pros and cons of points-tested visas?

The points-tested visas in Australia, Canada and New Zealand all replaced colonial-era systems that explicitly discriminated between applicants based on race and ethnicity. Points based systems are considered more fair and objective by comparison.

Points-tested visas are often thought to select ‘the best’ immigrants. By capping the number the number of points-tested visa invitations, the Australian Government creates competition in an attempt to improve the ‘quality’ of immigrants. However, critics note this is a narrow view of what constitutes a valuable contribution to a society.

The greatest challenge for policy makers regarding non-employer points-tested visas is managing both short- and long-term labour market demand from employers.

By selecting migrants based on age, language, and skills, points-tested visas are thought to promote the long-term health of a labour market by incrementally increasing the average skill level of workers. Labour market outcomes for people with points-tested visa are generally positive 18 months after gaining their visa.

However points-tested visas are difficult to administer and create unintended consequences. Policy makers can struggle with assigning points, what factors to include, and what occupations to select.

In Australia, before the system was changed to an invitation-based system, there was a widespread practice of gaining education qualifications aligning with eligible occupations. In the mid-2000s, this led to an explosion of people gaining hairdresser and accountant qualifications specifically to gain a points-tested visa without any associated employer demand. In an employer-based context, this would not have occurred.

How difficult would it be to introduce Australian-styled points-tested visas in the UK?

Introducing Australia’s points-tested visa categories would be a major change to the United Kingdom’s immigration policy system, both in terms of policy outcomes and culture.

A strong majority of non-EU immigrants to the United Kingdom currently require an employer to sponsor them. This is the case even if they are subject to an existing points-tested visa, such as the Tier 2 category. This is a major difference to Australia, where employer sponsorship and points-test visas are mutually exclusive.

In Australia, scale allows a diversity of skills to be selected. Over the decade to 2017-18, the top 10 occupations for points-tested visas accounted for fewer than half of associated visa grants. Yet in per capita terms, 68,000 permanent points-tested visas in Australia is equivalent to about 180,000 visas in the United Kingdom. This would likely lead to an immediate and sharp increase in the rate of net migration.

Finally, points-tested visa categories in Australia are one part of a broader migration-management system, including policy institutions like long-term data collection procedures, research and consultation protocols, and mechanisms for coordination across different but related policy areas. Many of these systems and habits are deeply ingrained and inseparable from culture. For example, because the media play a key role in shaping public attitudes to immigration, the outcomes of migration policy partly depend on what kinds of media reporting on immigration topics are / are not considered acceptable. Such norms are different in Australia and the UK.

Such norms are different in Australia and the UK, meaning it is difficult to simply transplant one bit of the system from one country to another. Australia has crafted the institutions above in part because it is a country of immigrants. The UK does not have the same institutional mix given its history as a major sender of emigrants, and has only relatively recently become a major receiver of immigrants.

For more information see The Migration Observatory’s recent report  The Australian points-based system: what is it and what would its impact be in the UK?

Blogs published elsewhere: Myths about the Australian horticultural labour market, and the irregular movement of people in the Indo-Pacific

I have a couple of blogs published this morning.

For the Development Policy Centre, I wrote about a new ABARES survey, showing there is no shortage of labour in the horticultural labour market. However the myth of a shortage is very strong and is resulting is poor policy decisions.

The results show that only 18 per cent of vegetable farms and 14 per cent of fruit and nut farms who recently recruited had difficulty filling vacant positions. This compares to 44 per cent for businesses across Australia. This is the best evidence to date that there is no horticultural labour shortage in Australia…

The fact that few horticultural farms have difficulty filling vacancies flies in the face of popular opinion. If you only followed media stories or political announcements, it would seem like regional Australia is beset by a massive labour shortage and that farms are struggling to attract any workers…

The new backpacker regulations that are now in place will further entrench exploitation of young migrants in the industry, exacerbate downward pressure on wages and conditions for existing workers in the industry, and undermine the SWP. There was no opposition to these changes in the Australian Parliament. The main opposition party, Labor, has increasingly raised issues of exploitation due to the precarious nature of employment for people on temporary visas, particularly backpackers. But when the opportunity arose to attempt to disallow the new regulations, nothing happened.

For the Lowy Interpreter, I wrote about how the irregular movement of people continues in our region, despite the bipartisan policy stance on asylum. Unfortunately this stance has led to a lack of engagement on very real issues such as the Rohingya refugee displacement.

Still, the irregular movement of people continues around Australia today. There are many more would-be migrants in the world than there are opportunities to migrate, and the inability to access authorised pathways generates irregular movement. To governments, people smugglers are criminals, yet in most cases, to the people they move, they are critical connections to a better life… 

The common refrain that we live in a world of porous global borders is largely a myth. Borders today are stronger than perhaps any time in human history, with many institutions deliberately designed to keep people out, such as passports, border checks, physical infrastructure, and military patrols, among other factors. In the example of Réunion Island, even in one of the most remote outposts of a G7 country, there are resources in place to enforce the border…

Yet Australia’s current approach is unilateral, with regional approaches considered nice to have but not necessary. The lacklustre Bali Process has failed to meet modest expectations and instead acts as a symbol of bureaucratic indulgence. No Australian government has entertained the idea of a reworked refugee resettlement program founded on the needs of the region, working together with countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Without Australia giving and contributing more in the region, the human cost of displacement continues to grow. 

A note on the previous blog post

I published a blog post earlier this morning which contained mistakes as I was comparing different datasets which were not apples to apples.

I have removed the blog post but just wanted to leave a note here in case there was any confusion about this. Apologies!

Cross-post: Most migrants on bridging visas aren’t ‘scammers’, they’re well within their rights

Dr. Shanthi Robertson and I have co-authored a short piece on the Conversation about bridging visas, Most migrations on bridging visas aren’t ‘scammers’, they’re well within their rights. The full article is published below.

Recent articles in the media have raised concerns about the rapid rise in migrants living and working in Australia on bridging visas, whose numbers have more than doubled in the last four years.

A bridging visa is granted to anyone who makes a visa application from within Australia. This form of visa comes into effect if the visa someone already holds expires while they’re in the country.

As of March 31, there were 229,242 people in Australia who held a bridging visa, the highest-ever figure in Australian history. A significant portion of bridging visa applicants are skilled and family migrants, often partners of Australian permanent residents and citizens.

But living on a bridging visa is a form of migration limbo as the Department of Home Affairs does not disclose how long any individual case may take to process. Migrants do not know if their application will be approved tomorrow, or if they will be waiting on a bridging visa for another year or more.

What’s more, employers and labour recruiters, especially in the horticultural industry, are taking advantage of these migrants as cheap temporary labour.

Most migrants on bridging visas aren’t ‘scammers’

Evidence is emerging that increasing numbers of migrants arriving on tourist visas are applying for humanitarian or protection visas once they’re in the country.

This is the group Kristina Keneally, the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs, refers to as “airplane people”. She criticises the Coalition for trumpeting a hard-line approach to offshore detention and “stopping the boats” when asylum seekers are arriving by other means and seeking protection onshore in increasing numbers.

This exploitation of temporary visa pathways is a growing concern and warrants investigation. But associating all bridging visas with “scammers” and “illegal migrants” misses the bigger picture of the role bridging visas play in our changing immigration regime and the inequalities they can create for migrants who are operating completely within the rules of the system.

They meet all the legal criteria for migration and are simply waiting for their applications to be processed by the Department of Home Affairs. For example, while there were 28,000 applicants for onshore asylum visas in 2017-18, there were more than 125,000 people holding a bridging visa and waiting for their permanent visa application to be finalised.

Growing wait times for partner visas

Perhaps the primary reason for the so-called “blowout” in bridging visas – as quoted in an ABC article – is simply because more legitimate applications for skilled and family migration are now made in Australia and waiting times for visa processing have increased.

Compare permanent partner visas in 2009-10 and 2017-18. There were about 53,000 applicants for partner visas in 2009-10. And there were 27,000 people waiting in the queue in June 2010.

Eight years later, there were 54,000 applicants for partner visas, but with fewer places available (39,800) and more than 80,000 people waiting in the queue. This means if you applied for a partner visa in June 2010, you were looking at about a six to eight month wait. And by June 2018, this had become around a two-year wait.

A consequence of under-resourcing in the Department of Home Affairs is that the time migrants spend living on bridging visas is increasing as the time taken to process a visa application grows. What’s more, waiting times for sponsored skilled work visas like the Employer Nomination Scheme can take up to 19 months.

Barriers to economic and social inclusion

These long waits create significant barriers to the economic and social inclusion of these migrants. One of the most significant issues is the stigma around bridging visas in the employment market. Although many of these migrants have in-demand skills, local work experience, and the strong desire to work, many Australian employers refuse to hire workers on bridging visas, leading to deskilling, exploitation and financial stress.

Long waits on bridging visas can create specific vulnerabilities for women on partner visas, making them highly dependent on their partners, and often unable to access adequate support in situations of domestic abuse.

In research conducted on the experiences of migrants on the “staggered pathway” from temporariness to permanence, migrants report being denied mobile phone contracts, personal loans or rental accommodation because of their bridging visas. Travel restrictions placed on some bridging visas also prevent migrants from travelling home to care for family members or attend family events.

Transparent and faster processing would mitigate many of the issues with bridging visas, whether for those exploiting the system or for those legitimate migrants stuck in the indefinite wait. Minimising time spent on bridging visas means onshore migrants can participate fully in both the economy and the community.