The Albanian government review of Australia’s migration system provides a blueprint for reviewing the troubled system and addressing at least some of its shortcomings.
Touted as the largest assessment of immigration since the FitzGerald Report of 1988, the Parkinson Review addresses issues ranging from our reliance on temporary immigration, skill lists and care shortages, immigration backlogs, and aging information technology systems in the Home Office.
The review represents a large-scale critique and potential upheaval of the immigration system, rather than, in the words of Interior Secretary Claire O’Neil, “ad hoc” changes. The main argument is that Australia has become too dependent on temporary migrants, with no clear paths for them to permanent residence.
Read more: Migration Review warns Australia is becoming a nation of ‘permanently temporary’ residents
What did the review think?
Because temporary visa numbers have not been capped since the Howard government, they are growing faster than permanent visa numbers. The number of temporary migrants has doubled in the past 15 years.
Yet there are not always clear ways to stay in Australia permanently. This results in temporary visa holders going through a series of visa “hops” before being granted permanent residency. Sometimes, she not win permanent residence at all.
The assessment is critical of temporary migration when it does not provide pathways to permanence. It suggests that Australia is at risk of becoming a guest worker society, like Germany or Switzerland in the post-World War II era. This “permanent temporary migration” system, it argues, has “damaged Australia and migrants and undermined community confidence in the migration system”. It leads to less equality and fairness.
The exploitation of migrant workers is identified as another related problem. Other commentators have also raised this point in academic and public inquiries, most notably the Fels Migrant Working Group that investigated the 7-Eleven scandal.
Mine research the use of court cases to analyze the issue of the exploitation of migrant workers has shown that those with temporary visas – and indeed visas without clear pathways to permanent status – are most at risk of exploitation.
The assessment identifies the Temporary Skilled Immigration Income Threshold (TSMIT), the salary benchmark used as a threshold for accessing temporary skills visas, as part of the exploitation problem. In the words of O’Neil, the TSMIT has become “frozen” over time and has not kept pace with the rise in the average wages of Australian workers.
My research shows that workers with lower occupational codes are more likely to be underpaid. O’Neil announced today that the TSMIT will be increased from $53,900 to $70,000. However, factors other than wage levels also influence the risk of exploitation, in particular visa status and whether migrants have access to union representation.
This reality that temporary status is partly responsible for exploitation risks poses challenges to another of the review’s recommendations: creating a visa to address shortages in the healthcare sector.
The review proposes protections to ensure that caregivers do not face the same exploitation as other lower-wage workers. Well comparative research suggests it is difficult, if not impossible, to create temporary work arrangements without at least some exploitation. This will be a core challenge if the government introduces a low-skilled care visa.
Matching the influx of migrants to Australia’s needs
The assessment makes the important point that Australia needs a more diverse economy to cope with an aging population and reduced productivity. The development of skills and capabilities will be crucial to this, and immigration can play an important role.
In this regard, the review finds the list of skilled occupations because the selection of skilled migrants (both permanent and temporary) does not work, because it cannot keep up with the rapid changes in our labor market.
As a result, Australia is “lagging behind in attracting skilled migrants in a fierce global competition for the best migrants”. This point is supported by research about the desire of migrants to come to Australia, suggesting that disadvantages deter migrants, among other things.
Read more: What do people really think about immigration to Australia? We analyzed their internet usage to find out
The review instead proposes selecting migrants through detailed identification of skills requirements by Jobs and Skills Australia. The body would target three types of skilled migrants: those with in-demand skills, those with high human capital, and “exceptional cases” (such as “an elderly prize-winning academic”).
Finally, the revision raises concerns about the complexity of the system and immigration backlogs. A central challenge for immigration reform is its size, complexity (with more than 100 different visas and tailor-made employment contracts) and detailed entry requirements.
The Migration Act 1958 is one of Australia’s longest and most complicated federal pieces of legislation. Add to that a web of regulations and policy advice manuals, and migrants face enormous challenges navigating the system.
A study of comparable countries found it Australia had the most complex visa system of the major western entry countries.
Last year, O’Neil identified immigration backlogs as a major challenge for the new government. This is another issue that comes up in the review.
While the government has responded by hiring more staff to process visas, backlogs remain a problem, especially for family migrants. The review blames this in part on “cumbersome” and outdated computer systems in the Home Office, which the report says need a complete overhaul.
Read more: Canada must consider the user experience of migrants when designing programs that affect them
Now we need action
The review is bold and detailed. It represents a major reform agenda that will take years, if not decades, to implement. But it’s probably worth it.
It provides intellectual and policy support for reforms in how temporary immigration levels are set around the budget, ease of switching between temporary and permanent visas, mitigation of exploitation risks and selection of skilled migrants. All of these concerns have been raised for some time, so it’s encouraging to see them reinforced by the expert review.
The challenge will lie in its implementation, both practically and politically. For example, abolishing temporary visas without clear pathways to permanent residence (such as visas for working holidaymakers or some areas of international student visas) will be opposed by relevant stakeholders, be they the migrants themselves or those who otherwise benefit from such immigration flows. .
Reducing flows in one area can also put pressure on other parts of the system, as migrants can choose visa routes based on availability. For example, if someone is unable to come as an international student, we may see an increase in sham applications for spouses. Clarifying these different trajectories will be particularly challenging at a time when our immigration system already is grow much faster than previously estimated.
Providing pathways for more temporary migrants could significantly increase the overall size of the permanent immigration program (although Minister O’Neil disputes this), which may not be best for Australia at a time of a growing housing crisis, or what voters desire.
The government will therefore have to be careful with the transitional arrangements that follow from this review and think about how it can slowly change the system. Not all implementation details are known at this time.
We know about O’Neil’s speech to the National Press Club that the government’s position is broadly consistent with the findings of the investigation. The TSMIT will be increased and there will be more ways to a permanent residence permit for the current temporary workers. Reforms for tertiary education and international students will also be announced in the coming weeks.
These changes alone are unlikely to achieve all the goals of the review, but when combined with reforms on worker exploitation and labor relations, they may alleviate some of its concerns.