Australia’s migration system is broken. It is a truth universally acknowledged by government, business, unions and academics.
The system has inadequately addressed Australia’s skills needs while exposing migrants to wage theft and mistreatment. A significant government-commissioned report published this week offers a bold plan that just might fix the broken system, if the government implements it.
Over the past 25 years, Australia has declined from an exemplary nation of immigrants, where workers from abroad were treated equally to Australian citizens, to a guest worker state where migrant workers are at significant risk of mistreatment and marginalisation.
The recommendations outlined in the Review of the Migration System, chaired by Martin Parkinson and released by Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil, promise to return Australia to its once world-leading model of equality and inclusion for migrants.
The Parkinson Review recommends restoring three principles central to the success of Australia’s pre-1996 immigration policies: a tripartite approach involving unions and employer associations in policy design and implementation, universality through all migrants being subject to same regulations, and mobility by allowing migrants to move freely between employers.
A tripartite approach underpinned expansion of Australia’s immigration program during post-war decades. Employer associations helped to identify the jobs and sectors most in need of migrant labour, which governments then verified. Trade unions supported recruitment of workers from abroad and played a key role in ensuring they were employed on the same terms as other workers.
Universality was integral to this post-war model. Migrant workers received permanent residency and wages and conditions equal to those of citizens. This gave migrants the security to build their lives in Australia.
Mobility within the labour market was a core part of this universality. Like citizens, migrants could move between employers unrestricted. This freedom of movement helped ensure that migrant workers could escape employers who underpaid or mistreated them, or find better uses for their skills. It meant employers wanting to attract and retain migrant workers had to treat them fairly and legally.
Since the mid-1990s, these important principles have been unwound. Governments moved away from tripartism and marginalised unions, whose representation had been vital for protecting migrant workers from unscrupulous employers. Temporary visa schemes with barriers to social and workplace rights were significantly expanded. Migrant workers’ ability to leave exploitative employment relationships was restricted, most notably for those on employer-sponsored visas.
Our research has documented how these shifts in Australia’s immigration policies created a guest worker regime under which migrants’ capacity to bargain for decent working conditions is curtailed and their agency to pursue opportunities available to citizens and permanent residents is diminished. Temporary migrants’ ability to seek redress if they are mistreated is limited by visa rules that place considerable power in the hands of employers.
The Parkinson review provides a blueprint for fixing these problems. Involving unions, employer associations and government will ensure that immigration policy meets the needs of workers, employers and the national interest. Restoring the principle of universality will address inequalities suffered by migrants. Allowing migrant workers mobility between employers will reduce a key source of mistreatment.
Previous reviews have identified failings of the immigration system only for their recommendations to be ignored. The Migrant Workers’ Taskforce chaired by Allan Fels made extensive recommendations to address migrant worker exploitation, but previous governments failed to implement them despite promises to do so.
This time might be different. Minister O’Neil has declared the immigration system “broken” and pledged wholesale reform.
Immigration has a vital role to play in addressing challenges that Australia will face in coming decades. It is vital the government acts upon the Parkinson Review’s recommendations.
This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald as 'Bold plan for immigration overhaul will address Australia’s future needs'. Associate Professors Chris F Wright and Stephen Clibborn teach and research at the University of Sydney Business School, where they are co-directors of the Sydney Employment Relations Research Group.