Temporary Protection Visas Skew Asylum Debate

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison stated in his address to the National Press Club on Wednesday: "The Refugee Convention and refugee resettlement programs of the world are supposed to be for asylum seekers, not Centrelink seekers".

The Age, by Joanna Howe, 12 September 2014

In the  government's mind, 457 visa holders come to Australia the right way, whereas asylum seekers arriving by boat come the wrong way. So the latter are "Centrelink seekers" while  the former "support themselves from the day they arrive; they pay tax."

In reality, the picture is more complex and nuanced than this. Both the demonisation of asylum seekers and the idealisation of temporary skilled migrants do little to engender an evidence-based national conversation on the role of migration in contemporary Australia.

Some recent examples highlight how the government's dichotomy is too simplistic. Last week, former Vietnam refugee Hieu Van Le was sworn in as South Australia's new governor. Arriving by boat more than  three decades ago to escape the ravages of the Vietnamese war, the minister would class Le as a "Centrelink seeker" arriving illegally. Yet he has contributed significantly to Australian society and has now been appointed to South Australia's highest position.

In contrast, shouldn't this week's story in Fairfax Media that 40 per cent of 457 visa workers are underpaid, not performing the jobs they are supposed to do or are no longer employed by the person who sponsored their entry into Australia, lead us to question whether 457 visa holders are automatically the right kind of migrant? While this exploitation is undoubtedly not the fault of migrant workers, it is clear that Morrison's world view of 457 visa holders as desirable migrants and asylum seekers arriving by boat as "illegals" doesn't quite stand up.

Leaving aside the well-trodden arguments about the evils of the government's approach to asylum seekers, it is clear that we need to have a more robust conversation around the shape of Australia's temporary skilled migration program, namely the 457 visa. A key concern is that 457 visa holders are being used in areas where there are no domestic skill shortages.  When this occurs, dodgy employers replace Australian workers with temporary migrant workers, paying them less and taking advantage of a more compliant workforce less likely to be unionised or to voice concerns over pay, safety and working conditions because of their desire to obtain permanent residency.

A step in the right direction is the report Robust New Foundations by the 457 visa independent review panel, released on Wednesday, which proposes that the current formula for identifying skill shortages be replaced by independent labour market testing. This is an idea that I outlined in The Age last year (//www.smh.com.au/comment/how-a-crackdown-on-457-visas-could-work-20130619-2oj69.html) and hinges upon using an independent panel to assess the composition of the occupational shortage list.

Currently, this list includes more than  600 occupations, some of which are clearly in oversupply rather than shortage. Yet, because an occupation is on the list, an employer can access an overseas worker to perform the job in Australia, despite the presence of many unemployed Australians in the same occupation. The previous Labor government's misguided solution was to introduce employer-conducted labour market testing, but this is not really an effective mechanism for identifying skill shortages as dodgy employers can easily evade it.

However, it seems unlikely that the government is going to adopt the recommendation that the 457 visa scheme rely on independent labour market testing to determine the profile of visa holders. The minister has not outlined this reform as being on the agenda in the near future, and in response to questioning at the National Press Club, he admitted that because of a lack of crossbench support, the government was prepared to retain the employer conducted labour market testing model but that the department would continue to apply this in a diluted fashion.

What this means in practice, is that there is no proper mechanism for determining whether a 457 visa holder is replacing the job of an Australian worker and being used to undercut local wages and conditions.

Instead of demonising asylum seekers and blindly praising 457 visa holders, the government needs to reform the temporary skilled migration scheme so that it actually works in practice, not just in rhetoric. The proposal by the 457 visa independent review panel that a more evidence-based and transparent approach to determining domestic skill shortages be adopted is an idea the government should seriously consider rather than sweep it under the carpet or place in the "too hard" basket.

Dr Joanna Howe is a lecturer at the University of Adelaide Law School and is an expert in temporary labour migration. Her proposal for independent labour market testing for the 457 visa was outlined in an article in the Federal Law Review last year.

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