Why The ALP Is Stumped On Temp Labour


The announcement on the weekend of changes to the 457 visa demonstrates the lingering unease within the ALP about temporary migration. The workers’ party is caught in a bind: how can it both protect the best interests of Australian workers, while accepting that temporary migration is firmly entrenched within the labour market?

The ALP is fond of invoking the Hawke-Keating reform record of the 1980s — and should be proud to do so. Barriers that prevented growth — tariffs, quotas and fixed exchange rates — were abolished in Australia. New jobs were created for a new generation of skilled Australians.

But globalisation also means people will move from one place to the other more frequently than ever before. Paul Keating understood this — before he lost government he commissioned and accepted the Roach report, opening the pathway for a large-scale temporary migration program in Australia. While John Howard formally implemented the program, it was the ALP, under Keating, which pushed first.

Despite this, nearly 20 years later, many progressive politicians are unsure what to make of temporary migrant workers. While tariffs have been banished from the collective memory, ethnic scab workers and the historic failure of guest-worker programs cloud contemporary debate about migration. Less than two years ago, the Federal Government established a new office in Brisbane to process 457 visas faster. Now it is attempting to scale back the program and wants to focus on employers who do the wrong thing.

Outside the parliament, the ACTU is firm — permanent migration is acceptable but temporary migrants are not welcome. Yet an ever-increasing percentage of permanent migrants are temporary migrants. These days over 50 per cent of skilled permanent migrants live and work in Australia well before they are officially counted as part of the migration program. As I have argued previously here at New Matilda, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

In his seminal article, "Migration and Community Formation under Conditions of Globalisation", Sydney University Professor Stephen Castles says, "it is important to re-think our understanding of the migratory process, to understand new forms of mobility". While Castles is rightly sceptical of the "permanent temporary" migrant, his point is that "there is no return to the neat idea of closed off nation-states of homogenous national communities".

While some may wistfully contemplate such a place, it is nowhere to be found, despite attempts to buy back economic rationalism by the ALP over the years. Kim Beazley promised to roll back the GST. Simon Crean pledged to re-introduce protective measures for Australian manufacturing. These policy proposals were jeered at, highlighting how the ALP just didn’t get it.

The critics were right. We now know what globalisation looks like: Australian living standards are rising, but we also have to accept economic ups and downs based on terms of trade figures. Plenty of jobs into the future will be filled by people who are not fifth generation Australians.

On Saturday, the freshly minted Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor said "Labor’s first priority is always ensuring jobs for Australian workers, and getting Australians into work". It’s a great talking point that builds on the Prime Minister’s message to the AWU conference last week: that the ALP is the "workers party", as opposed to a progressive or social-democratic one.

However, on temporary migration, all this means is that the ALP hasn’t worked out how to accommodate temporary migrant workers while satisfying its traditional voting base.

The measures announced on Saturday should be lumped in with those from the Beazley/Crean past. Unlike the reforms to the 457 visa program in 2009, undertaken after extensive review and evaluation, these proposals reach back to a more divisive past.

Just like any other industrial policy, a small minority of employers will seek to abuse the system. This doesn’t prove anything except that legislation does not mean enforcement. Of the over 22,000 employers who use the 457 visa program, it is beyond doubt that some abuse the program. Yet the "reforms" announced on Saturday will not help a single exploited migrant.

The Federal Government could have beefed up existing enforcement mechanisms with money to fund inspectors for dodgy employers, particularly in the construction and hospitality industry. Instead they have announced more red tape in a futile attempt to slow the number of 457 visa holders entering the country — just before an election. Tinkering with salary exemption levels, putting in place "genuine" job criteria and enforcing existing training requirements is bureaucratic babble designed to appeal to a caucus unsure of how to get Australians into secure work.

A little over two weeks ago, Laurie Ferguson, the former parliamentary secretary for Settlement and Multicultural Affairs, called for the ALP to better engage and explain the raft of positive migration policies announced over the past four years. Ferguson was reported in the AFR as saying "neither racism nor refugees per se were the problem, but rather the fear that cheap labour was costing jobs, when no such thing was happening".

Laurie Ferguson is right. No such thing is happening and the weekend’s announcement was nothing more than a cost-free blip on the news radar. Opening up borders, while ensuring Australians have the skills and education to be competitive in the future, instead of demonising employers with legitimate claims, needs to be incorporated into the collective memory of the ALP.

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