Permanent residency not temporary visas

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement that the government would scrap 457 visas left no one happy. The 457 will be replaced with two new Temporary Skilled Shortage Visas (TSSV) — one that lasts for two years and offers no pathway to permanent residency and another which may be issued for up to four years. 216 roles have been removed from the list of occupations for which a visa can be issued.

Employer organisations complained the change would make it more difficult to bring in migrant workers to fill areas of genuine shortage, which it probably will. Labor and the unions said the changes were just window dressing and there will still be occupations where employers can sponsor temporary migrants that suitably qualified unemployed permanent residents or citizens could have filled. This is also true.

The government's move was just a political stunt designed to revive its flagging popularity by talking about giving "Aussie workers priority for Aussie jobs". The attempt to tie it in with their racist jingoism was obvious, coming at the same time as their changes to the citizenship test. In his press conference on the issue, Turnbull found a way to throw the "stop the boats" mantra into the mix.

In practice the changes will do nothing to create jobs or job security for anyone, whether citizens or new migrants.

The central problem with both the 457 visa and the new TSSV is that they make the migrant worker dependent on the sponsorship of their employer for their visa. This is what makes it possible for workers on these visas to be subject to super-exploitation relative to the rest of the workforce. If they quit or lose their job they have only sixty days within which to find another sponsoring employer or face deportation.

Employer dependent temporary visas create a category of second class workers. Of course, some 457 workers are professionals working in areas of genuine skills shortage and can command high pay. However there are more than enough horror stories of bosses employing 457 visa workers on abysmal conditions way below market rates, dangling the carrot of permanent residency in front of them while also wielding the stick of deportation.

It is clear that the temporary visa regime is completely rotten and needs to be scrapped altogether and replaced with one that uncouples the visa from the individual employer.

However for the most part the union movement has failed to attack the core problem and instead has focused on stricter policing of its conditions, both the occupations for which employers can sponsor migrants and "market testing" to determine whether there is a genuine shortage of a given skill. You can spend a lot of time tying yourself in knots with that exercise, not least because the ground keeps shifting as projects come and go and different parts of the economy expand and contract.

Furthermore, by focusing attention on whether a particular migrant worker or group of workers "should" or "should not" be in the country leads people to see the migrant worker as the source of the problem rather than the system itself. Given that a dominant theme of Australian politics for the past decade has been the scapegoating of refugees and Muslims in order to distract working people from growing economic inequality, rejecting any sniff of this "blame the foreigner" bullshit should be basic stuff for the union movement.

Sadly this has not happened, and many unions have collapsed behind Labor's complete capitulation on this issue to the detriment of Australian workers and refugee rights. Presumably Labor has also decided that employer dependant temporary visas are here to stay in some form or another and that scrapping them altogether is not "realistic". Well, that may be their line, but it's no reason for the union movement to tag along.

Australia was built on migrant labour. The hundreds of thousands of migrants who came to this country when we faced an acute labour shortage in the decades immediately after World War II all came as permanent residents, not on temporary visas or via some kind of crappy "guest worker" scheme. It was good enough then, so it's good enough now.

Many of these migrants went on to become stalwarts of the union movement, as well as making a huge contribution to Australian society in general. It is worth reflecting on that history as it makes it clear that migrant workers, regardless of their status — temporary visa, permanent resident or citizen — should be all be treated by the union movement first and foremost as fellow workers.

For as long as any category of super-exploitable temporary visa exists, the approach of the union movement should be to bring those workers into its fold. On a unionised worksite with a union negotiated EBA, employers cannot use these visas as a wedge to drive down wages and conditions. The union movement faces real challenges in breaking into the huge number of workplaces with non-union agreements, but it has to reach out to these workers regardless of the residency or visa status. 

As always our motto must be, "blame the system not the victim."