I attended a Senate Committee hearing today examining some new migration legislation – the Migration Amendment (Employer Sanctions) Bill. Unlike most government amendments to the Migration Act, these seem to be broadly positive. Even by government standards, they’ve been a long time coming, as they were first mooted back in 1999.
The effect of the Bill is to introduce new offences for employers and labour suppliers who knowingly employ people who do not have work rights in Australia. According to the Explanatory Memorandum for the Bill, at 31 December 2005, there were estimated to be just under 46,400 overstayers in the Australian community. Of that number, around 56%, or 26,200 people had been in Australia unlawfully for more than 5 years. Many of the long-term overstayers would be engaged in some form of paid employment. Of course some people who are here lawfully, such as tourists, may also be working in contravention of their visa.
Currently, the employee can be penalised for working unlawfully, but it is difficult to fine those who employ them, even when they clearly know the person is not entitled to do so.
This is a double edged problem. While there is clearly a number of employers who specifically target unlawful workers because they can be more easily exploited, there is also a significant labour shortage in some areas which can mean that people of uncertain entitlement are the only labour that an employer can find.
Even though we are taking in record numbers of permanent and temporary residents on skilled visas with the stated intent of meeting these labour shortages, there are still enormous inefficiencies in the way the system works. As has been made clear to a separate Committee inquiry that is still under way, some people are coming to Australia under our skilled migration program, only to find their skills aren’t recognised and therefore cannot access the area of employment they expected, while employers are still unable to find people to fill their positions.
None of which is to excuse people who deliberately employ illegal workers, but it is worth being aware of the conditions in some parts of the labour market. As the current migration debate in the USA shows on a much larger scale, there is a big contradiction between the need of their employment market to have people doing the sort of low paid work that migrants – lawful and unlawful – are often the only ones prepared to do, and the desire to tightly regulate and control what type of people get to stay in the country.
This has resulted in curious compromises being proposed to combine a ‘tough on illegal migration’ measure which would criminalise illegal migration, with a measure that would allow an estimated eleven and a half million illegal migrants already in the USA to be able to apply for citizenship.
The USA’s economic system relies heavily on millions of illegal workers, but its political system relies on continuing to keep them powerless and disenfranchised. While our economy does not rely much on illegal workers, it does rely heavily on migrant labour – increasingly on temporary visas as much as permanent – with some similarly contradictory political messages as a result.
I just got the transcript from the Committee hearing which contained some comments from the Department about the aspects of the current migrant intake aimed at filling employment gaps. I found it interesting and others may also:
This year we have the largest migration program probably in 30 years. The skilled migration component of that, at 97½ thousand, is the largest ever skilled stream component in Australia’s history.
In addition to that permanent migration element that addresses particularly the skills shortages, there have been a range of other temporary entry options that have been worked on. In terms of the skilled area again, the long stay business visa—the so-called subclass 457 visa that enables employers to sponsor skilled workers to come to Australia—has been expanded. We are expecting to be issuing in the order of 60,000 visas to temporary residents for stays of up to four years this year. That is in comparison to just under 50,000 last year and closer to 40,000 the year before. So there has been quite a big increase in the number of people coming in from overseas.
At the same time, the student visa program has increased. Again, it is at record levels. These are people who can work 20 hours per week. They do not necessarily all have to be employed in skilled occupations.
Quite importantly, the working holiday maker program has also been expanded in a particular way to address some of the issues that you have alluded to, particularly in the horticultural area and in regional Australia and the like. People who come to Australia on a working holiday maker visa can apply for a second one if they have in fact worked in those sorts of areas. So we are having not only larger programs but also an expansion to encourage people to work in areas of need.