More Committee Inquiries – skilled & semi-skilled migration, Pacific Islands and New Zealand

I’m trying to keep my toe(s) in the water of a range of different of Senate and Parliamentary Committee Inquiries at the moment. Following on from spending the last couple of days focused on the petrol sniffing inquiry, I attended public hearings today in Brisbane into an inquiry by the Joint Migration Committee into overseas skills recognition, licensing and related issues for migrants to Australia.

In a world of ever-changing skills and trades, it is hard to get this issue precisely right. However, I do find it puzzling that the government is increasing our intake of people on skilled permanent visas to record levels – close to 100 000 this year – when there are still so many problems with matching migrants’ skills and qualifications with what is required in Australia. This problem is exacerbated when you also add the sizeable number of people receiving temporary skilled and business visas.

A separate Senate inquiry is being held which touches on other labour market related migration issues. This is examining the viability of allowing people from Pacific Island countries to come to Australia on some form of temporary unskilled employment visas. These are sometimes called ‘guest workers’, although I think this is a bit misleading. We already have over 100 000 working holiday visas issued each year, which play a key role in filling gaps in the unskilled labour market, such as seasonal agricultural and hospitality work. I shouldn’t pre-empt the findings of the inquiry, but personally, I’m not sure why allowing people to come from Pacific Island countries is so dramatically different to this.

Here are a couple of pieces on the topic. Firstly, an opinion piece from last year by Hugh White:

Be careful what you wish for. Two years ago John Howard went to Auckland to tell the leaders of the South Pacific to take a hard look at their collective future. They agreed and developed a Pacific Plan, which could one day become the stepping stone to a regional confederation among Australia and its small neighbours.

Now Howard faces a test: if he is serious about Pacific integration, he must allow Pacific Islanders to come and work in Australia on short-term visas.

Secondly, an article outlining the contents of a federal government commissioned report by a taskforce on foreign aid:

Australia will have to open its doors to potentially tens of thousands of unskilled migrants to save its smaller Pacific island neighbours from economic ruin, a report commissioned by the Federal Government has found. The report, by a taskforce on foreign aid, argues that the plight of the island nations has become so dire that urgent remedies, notably moving abroad in search of job opportunities, are necessary to keep them viable.

The tiny states of Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu are cited as the economies most in need of a migration fix. But the report also points to Melanesian nations like Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, with their larger populations.

Late last year, the Prime Minister, John Howard, flatly rejected a request from Pacific island leaders to allow seasonal workers into the country, arguing that it would simply create a new pool of visa overstayers.

Another inquiry which has just been initiated is a review of Australia’s trade and investment relations with New Zealand under the Closer Economic Relations (CER) Agreement. Whilst the CER is a classic, long standing (and in my view highly successful) bi-lateral agreement, I think it could also be used to provide more constructive engagement with many countries in the South Pacific too.

These inquiries might all seem to be dry examinations of technical aspects of immigration and trade policy, but to me they show why immigration is so central to economic prosperity and economic opportunities for our whole region. It raises a range of difficult consequential matters that need to be addressed, but the wider social and economic benefits are significant if the opportunities are grasped and these things are done well.

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  1. More cynicism, but I can’t help it.

    If we organised for the populations of drowning Pacific islands to come here under labour schemes we could continue to deny global warming.

  2. Geoff, a few things. When the idea was floated several months ago the intention was that young Islands men would be able to work at seasonal labouring jobs in Australia.

    There is little if any training required for fruit picking, thinning, or packing. And as many Aussies know, the pay isn’t all that good. When I spent some time picking a few years ago the workers were holidaying students, long term backpackers who wanted to get an extended visa by having worked for a while, and the odd older couple seeing their country. Very few young people work at picking full time or as their sole source of income.

    Aussie farmers would likely welcome an influx of labour. There would be a temptation to lower wages, and something would need to be set in place to monitor that, but otherwise the economic argument for increased unskilled labour coming from our region is sound.

    Further, Mr Downer likes to claim that Australia is respected in the region. Surely agreeing to allow short-term immigration for economic reasons would only serve to heighten that supposed respect.

    And finally, the remittances that would flow from workers in Australia back to Pacific communities would be as good as foreign aid in terms of contributing to community-level development, possibly even funding investment in microenterprise. Unlike aid, the monies would not “boomerang” back to Aussie companies, and would likely go directly to families, some outside of the formal economy.

    All that stands in the way of this win-win outcome is the cock-eyed domestic politics of the government and a spattering of supposedly nationalist attitudes that obscure the bigger picture.

    Allowing these workers to enter Australia would not be “discrimination” against other workers. It would be a concrete contribution to stability and development in our region. If the Howard government could reverse its policy toward the Solomon Islands overnight then we should insist that it reconsider this decision, too.

  3. I understand that argument Damien.
    I guess my main beef is with skilled migration… we need to skill up not import skills, we’ve done enough damage to our own industries by neglecting trades and other skilled vocations for at least 3 decades now.

    I have no problems with people coming here for seasonal work if we cannot fill the quota with Australians. I’d hate to think farmers and others would abuse this though by paying lower wages.

    Slave labour and the like is not something we should strive for.

  4. Damian I agree with you. It is very different when the rich kids can pay one year in advance after studying IT jobs they are Given A PR. We do need however to make sure they dont all head for the hills when it is time to leave. Perhaps that is his concern.

  5. Its easy to find ongoing work for them at any rate. You have the baby boomers getting older and we need more carers now and their are plenty of country business that have closed due to lack of labour.

  6. Geoff, sorry mate. I realised after posting that my thoughts were directed primarily at the Pacific side of the argument, not the more general side that you are addressing.

    As for skilled labour in Australia, well we have to ask why it is lacking. It isn’t opportunity, nor access. Or is it? My working class family are now scattered across the spectrum of professions, trades, and semi-skilled work. We can all get jobs if we want. Why the hell do we have a shortage of skills?

    Wendy, Antje, Geoff – cheers. No beef from me. Only questions. Quite a discussion. I am away from Australia at present, and Bartlett’s blog is a beaut way to stay abreast. It’s good to see exchanges like this.

  7. Considering the extremely high rates of violence and crime in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands — do we want to import their criminals?

    We’ve already sent our police and even the Army to try to keep peace in those places, at the cost of at least one Australian life.

    How can we ensure that those responsible for the violence don’t move here with work visas? We already have trouble with some migrant groups importing their bad habits.

  8. You gotta get out of bed each day EP – there’s alwasy a risk with everything. I think the link between econmoic need and paetrnalism is the issue here. Damiens argument is appealing but smacks a little of the white mans burden to me. It was economic to use blacks to pick cotton – depsite everything else said this proposal is not much different, just a bit of social softness added..

    I’d perfer un – under employed people here to do the work, students etc. I picked fruit years ago it was a great learnign erxpericne and ensured I studied a bit harder in the next year.

  9. There will always be risks, but we can act to minimise them.

    We have access to a very wide choice of potential immigrants. We should carefully select those who offer the greatest benefit and the least risk to our society. Let us not repeat the mistakes of the politically correct years.

  10. EP, is your suggestion that we will “import criminals” a serious one, or are you joking?

  11. Damian
    How are you doing over there where ever you are. There are ways of killing two birds with the one stone with bringing them in to do some jobs that our people wont.
    I know the Korean Government are looking at a way of doing just that with a progect we are working on. We are opposition so i dont have the full details. The jobs are hard work but they also sponcer them for some studies under the same progect.They end up getting about seven dollars an hour but they also get paid the same amount for the time spent studying. So in effect they get free education as well so its good for them.If you were here you could watch today tonight on monday evening . They are running a report on our jobs being advertised overseas instead of here.Must say i cant see a lot of point in advertising them here the Government has trained nobody. We have no skilled labour or Drs. The other half dont want jobs. Its all well and good who ever said we could pick the fruit ourselves but the farmers can not get labour.

  12. Wendy, I agree with what you are saying. I am reminded here of the situation a few years back when rural communities were calling out for skilled medical staff while South Asian-qualified immigrants in Sydney were unemployed or driving taxis.

    That’s a sweeping statement, EP. Some facts that support your position would help. I seriously doubt that violent criminals would arrive to torment us and steal our jobs and cars. African nations, and many in Asia, have also suffered prolonged civil strife. The immigrants – economic or humantiarian – from Somalia, for example, are not necessarily violent criminals. I think you are clutching at straws, and playing an argument that you know will appeal to some nationalists.

  13. “I guess my main beef is with skilled migration… we need to skill up not import skills”

    Why? What’s the difference? We get skilled workers either way. It’s much cheaper to import them than it is to subsidise yet more tertiary education/training.

    Subsidising education is a big reason for the skills shortage in any case.

    When people can go to university for free (and get paid Austudy) to study something like Art or Philosophy or even Business – which are all totally useless degrees, it really hurts our ability to produce people who are skilled in anything at all.

    It might be a much better long-term plan to take out an apprenticeship in plumbing than it is to do a 4-year degree in Political Science (Might isn’t the right word – it’s undeniably better), but to a 17 year old school leaver going to Uni sure sounds like more fun, and when it’s all paid for by the government and your income is provided by centrelink there’s not much incentive to do the apprenticeship.

    Turning University into an extended 3-4 year holiday for school leavers is what led to the skills shortage in the first place.

    You can currently enrol in a course like Business (full-time study load – 12 hours per week), get paid $200 a week by Austudy, work 1 day a week to supplement your income and basically live the life of Riley. Who would want to do hard work? At that age a full-time trainee worker wouldn’t earn much more than that.

    Of course by the time they are both 25, the trainee plumber will be on $100,000 a year and the uni graduate will most likely be working in a call centre and be lucky to be earning $35k.

  14. Damian, in fact some of those “refugees” from Somalia whom you mention have been partaking in crime sprees in Western Australia.It’s also the case that many immigrants from war-torn Lebanon have set up criminal gangs in Sydney.

    You’re obviously unacqainted with the facts, and are simply indulging in politically correct prejudice which insists that all non-Australians are angels. Nobody with sense buys such fantasies anymore.

  15. EP, who are you quoting when you say “refugees”, and do your facts ever come with supporting evidence? Neither of your anecdotes prove that ethnic background leads to violent crime. How can this be an argument against semi-skilled migration, through a process yet to be determined, for seasonal employment, from the small states of the Pacific?

  16. And when I say, “Neither of your anecdotes prove that ethnic background leads to violent crime”, I should add… nor that the migrant origins of criminals are a determining factor in an individual’s proclivity toward involvement with crime.

    Unless you know something the rest of us don’t.

    I would say it is your view that nationality or ethnicity determines social behaviour that is no longer listened to.

  17. There are two problems with the proposal, both quite practical. The lesser problem is out-mgration of skilled and professional workers from teh pacific. Nobody out there wants another out-migration like the Indo-Fijian one after the 2000 Speight Coup. The PIC cannot afford the ‘brain drain’ to be any worse.

    The deal-killer is different. It is apparent that nobody who has commented here knows what it is. I do, it is within my area of personal expertise. It is the problem of Asian organised crime and illegal immigration. Nobody I know of has a problem with PIC people coming in on seasonal work visas. The problem is that governance in the PIC ranges from ‘shaky but OK’ (Fiji) to ‘Governance? What Governance?’ (PNG).

    The example I will use is PNG. It would take about ten minutes for ‘seasonal workers’ from PNG to all be ethnic Chinese fresh from Fujian Province. They’d get thru the barrier here, then apply for temporary bridging visas, and the snakeheads would be partying in Fujian.

    OK, how and why. 97% of births in PNG are not recorded by the Registrars. So, ANYONE can go to the registrar, register their birth in, say, Lae on their real DoB, use this to obtain a genuine PNG passport, and away you go. You have to do a couple more things too, but I ain’t gonna mention them here. Bottom line, it will cost you quite a few kina, but you will have zero problem becoming a ‘legit PNG citizen’ within a few weeks of getting the snakehead to get you to PNG. it appears that the appropriate people have long since been corrupted, from conversations with people in the know who live in PM.

    Secondly, there will be a minor problem with genuine raskols heading for greener pastures, and us not knowing about it because of the poor governance issue. I believe that to be a minor issue only, as once detected here we could kick them out and not allow them back.

    According to statements in the PNG Parliament, they estimate that there are 10,000 illegal Chinese immigrants in the country (2004 statement IIRC), and just go ANYWHERE in the pacific and check out the number of Chinese illegals there are out there. I have noticed a vast increase in numbers and presence since 1985. SO has everyone else who knows the area. In 1995 there was no shop in Mt Hagen in Chinese hands (except a few run by PNG Chinese who have been there forever). Now, two-thirds of them are run by New Chinese (NOT by PNG Chinese).

    So that is the set of problems. I know of nobody here in Canberra with a particular bent against the concept. It is just that governance in most PIC is so poor that it would simply be a conduit to be used by people traffickers.

    And before people get on their high horse about this being the “racist rant against ‘refugees'” schtick, please let me inform you that the major priority for people trafficking by asian organised crime would seem to be sex-slaving, to provide fresh meat to their brothels. Mere economic migrants do use this path, but that is fee-for-service. Sex-slaving traffic is much, much more profitable for criminal gangs.

    I know of no-one who wants to open that door. I personally hate people traffickers with a passion, it comes from hauling the corpses of their victims from the ocean. They kill people in job lots (witness SIEV X).

    If we can assist the PIC to improve governance so that we know we are getting genuine Fijians (say) who will come over and work for 6 months of the year for year in, year out, remit home, and go home for the other 6 months and take their money and skills with them to improve the Fijian economy, then I think everyone would fall over themselves to make it happen.

    PIC people are our very close friends, it is in our interests to help them, but they have problems, and are too proud to either be told by us how to fix them, or to have us fix them for them. And fair enough too! But they will accept our assistance in fixing their problems themselves where they own the process. Fortunately, we are trying to do this.


  18. Yobbo… of course it is better for AUSTRALIANS to have skills.

    They don’t send money back to the old country, form enclaves, create debt due to importation of products from their home country… etc, etc, etc…. in fact the benefits are many.

    I consider tradesmen as skilled. I’m not sure what point you were trying to make.

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