Temporary Labour Is Here To Stay


The global migration market is changing and the growth of Australia’s temporary visa program, which has become a major component of our intake since 2000, receives little attention compared to the heated controversies about the arrival of asylum seekers by boat.

There are economic, social, cultural and political consequences for this dramatic change in our immigration program, and it is time to begin asking questions about how we are going to deal with the effects of a slow shift from permanent to temporary migration.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship released its annual report last week, giving us insights into the current state of Australia’s immigration program. Our temporary 457 visa program is a demand driven, uncapped entry scheme that enables workers to work and live in Australia for up to four years. The report reveals that demand for 457 visas has increased by 32.6 per cent in 2010-11 from 2009-10 levels. The increase is partly due to the financial crisis in the previous years, but is also related to emerging skills shortages.

Overall, the 2010-11 period is the strongest on record for the temporary program. 48,080 visas were granted to temporary workers, and a further 42,040 were granted to their dependents. The total 90,120 temporary visa grants rivals the 113,725 visas that were granted under the permanent skilled migration program. As of June this year, the DIAC report shows there were 131,430 temporary visa holders living in Australia, and 72 030 were primary applicants.

Economic migration is important for advanced and post-industrial economies. Migrant workers provide additional labour during times of economic and demographic shifts and provide special types of labour to fill emerging skill shortage areas. Migration makes it easier to maintain flexibility in the labour market and can encourage investment and growth.

However, the legal status of migrant workers can foster resentment against them among local workers for fear of foreign labour undermining wages and conditions. For these reasons, unions have traditionally viewed the 457 program with suspicion. An ACTU action plan circulated at the jobs forum in Canberra on 6 October calls for limitations to the use of 457 visas, and for an audit of the scheme to ensure that the numbers of visas issued are justified under current labour market conditions. Unions have also historically voiced worry over the wages and working conditions of temporary workers.

This is despite 2009 reforms that place an obligation on employers to train locals before seeking migrant workers, and which give sponsors the responsibility to ensure that 457 visa-holders are provided with terms and conditions as favourable as those provided to local workers. These measures are enforced through a new compliance program that has warned 453 employers, and sanctioned 140, out of 18,520 businesses involved in the temporary worker program.

Nevertheless, exploitation of temporary workers and abuse of the 457 visa program remains a pressing issue. The CFMEU has targeted 457 compliance as a major ongoing concern after the Fair Work Ombudsman imposed a record fine of $123,000 on a Western Australian construction company found to be paying foreign workers less than $3 an hour.

In July this year, the Ombudsman ordered a Perth sushi cafe to back-pay two foreign workers almost $50,000, while a Sydney carwash faced court in September for allegedly underpaying 62 casual employees almost $100,000. On Monday, the federal government announced $485,000 funding to combat labour trafficking and slavery in Australia, a portion of which will go toward Australian Red Cross efforts to identify and combat labour trafficking among Indian 457 visa holders in New South Wales and Victoria.

In addition to concerns over wages and working conditions, the increased ethnic diversity of new migrant arrivals can lead to the stigmatisation of foreign workers along racial lines, and social and cultural difference can further exacerbate tensions. The new immigration department reports shows that, although British migrants are the most common temporary workers (26.5 per cent of all applications), 18.3 per cent are from India, while the Philippines, China, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia are all within the top 15 countries of citizenship for 457 visa applicants.

The Scanlon Foundation’s recent Mapping Social Cohesion report for 2011 indicates that that fewer than 5 per cent of Australians hold negative attitudes towards migrants from English-speaking and European countries. Around 11 per cent have a negative position on people from Asia, and around 14 per cent do not feel good about Indian migrants. This year, 21 per cent of Australians hold negative feelings towards immigrants who come from the Middle East. Close to 25 per cent had a negative attitude towards Iraqis and Lebanese specifically, which is much higher than any other group.

These results indicate the importance of addressing issues of ethnic diversity in the work force so that we can maintain and promote social cohesiveness during a time in which Australia is dramatically increasing its intake of temporary foreign workers and their families. The ACTU’s recent Working Australia Census found that 3.5 per cent of respondents had trouble getting a job because of their appearance, 2.6 because of their race or religion, and 1.3 because of language difficulties.

Primary applicants for temporary visas do not have to worry about seeking employment but their dependents must cope with existing ethnic and racial discrimination in the labour market, as do any temporary workers who become permanent settlers. Depending on their country of origins, foreign workers must also face ethnic, religious and cultural stigmas attached to them by segments of the Australian public.

In an age of global migration, when temporary work is fast becoming the preferred form of short-term labour for business and ethnic diversity is increasing, the Australian government must develop an integrated strategy to cope with a growing foreign worker program. We need to form a detailed and coherent policy on the place of non-citizens in our country.

The impact of migrant workers on the labour market must be considered with more care, and the rights of visa-holders need to be protected with more vigilance. The effect of increased ethnic diversity on social cohesion in the workplace and in society as a whole is also a dominant concern.

A move away from multiculturalism has been apparent since the Howard years, but no government can reasonably adopt a policy of assimilation or integration for lawful non-citizens who do not intend to settle permanently. Increasing numbers of temporary migrants suggests the need to formulate policy positions that embrace cultural and ethnic diversity in the workplace.

Australia’s immigration program is responding to changes in the global migration market, and these are some of the issues that Australia needs to address if we are to adapt to this new era of immigration successfully.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.