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Are Australian migrants "crowding out" domestic job seekers?

Australia's liberal approach to work rights and new generous rules on post-study work for graduates are the envy of other education destinations. Yet according to an independent report, access to Australia's labour market is being relaxed at a time when the employment boom is over. The result will mean marginalised Aussies unable to access the labour market. But sector stakeholders slam this position as too simplistic, observing migrants often do jobs shunned by locals. Sara Custer delves deeper.
December 7 2012
4 Min Read

Australia’s immigration policy, including extended working rights for international students, has been harshly criticised by an Australian independent research organisation based out of Monash University – for allowing migrants to exploit the system and “crowding out” domestic job seekers.

A controversial report by the Centre for Population and Urban Research (CPUR) has called on the government to cull immigration intake and take a harder line on temporary visa issuance.

“The immigration program is set on full throttle, whereas the net growth of the employed workforce in Australia has slowed to a crawl,” it says.

Temporary visa subclasses offer a “back door” to permanent residency the report claims

According to the report, Immigration Overshoot, net growth in the employed workforce in Australia was just 58,000 between the August quarter for 2011 and the August quarter for 2012. But, at least 100,000 migrants arrived who found employment in Australia in the past year.

Temporary visa subclasses offer a “back door” to permanent residency, the report claims. “With the massive expansion of higher education in Asia, and large numbers of graduates looking for career opportunities, access to the Australian labour market is highly sought after. Many begin the process by first entering Australia on a student or some other temporary visa.”

The flexibility of the visa system is blamed for “visa churning” which occurs when students continually apply for different categories of visas in order to extend their stay in the country.

According to the report, in 2011-12, some 26,671 overseas students already in Australia were granted a tourist visa. This practice should not be allowed, argues the report’s authors, demographers Bob Birrell and Ernest Healy at Monash University.

They argue that the Knight review’s recommendation to extend unrestricted work rights to students in Australia who complete a university degree (to take affect in 2013) doesn’t take into consideration implications for domestic job seekers.

“Knight insists that his temporary-entry proposals are about temporary residence – and should not be seen as the beginning of a pathway to prolonged stay in Australia. This is a pipedream,” they say.

The report also singles out the ability of migrants to set up as an independent contractor rather than work as employee as one that is “bad public policy”. Echoing the rhetoric used in some quarters of the UK, the report states, “The guiding principle of these visa programs should be enforced, namely that their prime purpose is holidaying or study – not work.”

An extract from the report, available online

It explains, “By this standard, the Australian government should also restrict the work conditions on these visas to allowing work as a directemployee only and not as a so-called’ independent contractor’. Under current visa rules, overseas students and WHMs can take out an Australian Business Number (or 4 ABN) and employers can engage them as ‘ABN workers’ pretending to work as independent contractors running their own businesses when it fact they are disguised employees. This practice, known as ‘sham contracting’, occurs in many industries where overseas students and WHMs [Working Holiday Makers] work such as cleaning, construction, call centres and the taxi industry.”

Such practice “contributes to labour exploitation, to tax evasion and avoidance, and to undermining wages and conditions for Australian workers”.

It also signals that temporary work rights afforded to students while they study mean that Australians are being marginalised in the jobs market.

“Most work in entry-level occupations such as in hospitality, supermarket checkout and shelf-stacking positions and in retail sales,” states the report. “This is a serious matter because they are in direct competition with young low-skilled domestic workers, many of whom are seeking to enter the labour market.”

However, the International Education Association of Australia says the government is not in a position to rescind its offer to foreign students.

“These kinds of initiatives will make a difference to Australia’s youth unemployment rates, not making scapegoats of international student”

“The ability to work part-time (and full time during semester/term breaks) has long been a marketing device used by Australia to attract full fee-paying students from overseas. We cannot now have it both ways – take their tuition fees, high rental accommodation payments and cost of living expenses and then say there is no quid pro quo,” Executive Director, Phil Honeywood told The PIE News.

He also highlighted that some of the low-skilled jobs undertaken by international students, such as commercial cleaning, catering and taxi driving, were shunned by young, Australian-born people.

Claire Field, CEO of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training (ACPET), also rejected the report’s suggestions that stricter migration control would ease unemployment. Rather, programmes offering education and training for both local and international students should be promoted, she said.

“Reforms to the funding of vocational education and training in the state of Victoria recently have seen unprecedented enrolments by unemployed learners, young people who did not complete high school, and those with low levels of literacy and numeracy,” she told The PIE News.

“Similar reforms are being rolled out across Australia over the next two years. These kinds of initiatives are what will make a difference to Australia’s youth unemployment rates, not making scapegoats of international students.”

She continued, “If there were a link between international student numbers and youth unemployment rates in Australia – then the large decline in international students studying Australia in recent years should have resulted in a commensurate decline in youth unemployment. This does not appear to have been the case.”

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