What about Unskilled Labour?
What about Unskilled Labour?
Apr 27, 2010
Labour shortages: A lopsided immigration program will leave many businesses stranded.
An obsession with skilled migrants overlooks a critical part of the labour force.
Report: Anthony Sibillin
The federal government and opposition might disagree on how many people Australia should let in. But they agree on who should be let in: engineers, doctors, nurses, accountants and other people with skills.
Yet many local businesses warn this political consensus is leaving them dangerously short of workers with basic or no skills.
Business groups such as the National Farmers' Federation, Australian Tourism Export Council and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry say low-skilled workers should feature in the migration program of a country with a population that is rapidly ageing.
" With a changing demographic profile we need to consider shortages may also be more prevalent in relation to low-skilled workers," ACCI industry policy and economics director Greg Evans says, so the national policy approach needs to accommodate such demand which may need to be met from overseas".
As it is, almost three in four migrants allowed to settle in Australia in 2009-10 will have to pass a "points test" set by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
Points are awarded for youth, English proficiency and qualifications and experience in one of hundreds of occupations the department decrees the country needs.
"We have an inefficient, centrally planned system whereby bureaucrats determine the industries which should be allowed to utilise the global labour market," Chris Berg, a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs, says.
"It is not clear that the government is capable of planning the labour market in that way".
DIC bureaucrats have certainly been incapable of avoiding chronic shortages of low-skilled workers in agriculture, tourism and other industries.
The NFF has been complaining of "vast shortages" of entry-level workers for the better part of this decade. For instance, year after year members struggle to find people willing to pick fruit and vegetables. The result? Higher wages for those they do find, lower profits for them, and higher prices for consumers.
Australia was not always as choosy about who it lets in. After World War II it admitted millions of unskilled workers from Europe and, later, Asia. Even 20 years ago, skilled migrants made up only half the total.
The proportion has since risen steadily to about 70 per cent today.
Phillippe Legrain, a former adviser to the World Trade Organisation, says the change in policy is based on the mistaken idea that a rich country such as Australia no longer creates many low-skilled jobs.
"Every hospital requires not just doctors and nurses but also many more cleaners, cooks, laundry workers and security staff," Legrain writes in Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them (2006, Little Brown).
Australia's "lopsided" migration program actually makes existing shortages of low-skilled workers worse, he says, since "all of those workers in .... hospitals rely on people to build, repair and clean the roads, to drive taxis, buses and ambulances, to fix leaky roofs and unblock drains."
Denied permanent help from overseas, businesses are turning to visitors who are in the country temporarily. For example, the tourism industry would "grind to a standstill" without low-skilled workers on working holidays and "457" visas, ATEC managing director Matthew Hingerty says.
But "high turnover, continual training costs and volatility of workers" make temporary workers less than an ideal solution to what are permanent shortages, the NFF says.
Some maintain there are enough unemployed and underemployed locals to fill low-skilled jobs. "As a general proportion, I don't think there is a pressing need for large-scale immigration of unskilled workers, former Australia and New Zealand Banking Group chief economist Saul Eslake, now program director, productivity growth, at the Grattan Institute, says.
But it appears that Australian-born teenagers in capital cities are not as excited about picking fruit and waiting on tables as Eslake thinks they are.
"Australian are not typically attracted to seasonal work," the NFF says.
If the obsession with skilled migrants is economically doubtful, it is surely "morally wrong" to discriminate between people on the basis of their skill level, Berg says.
"Individuals seeking economic advancement and to work where jobs are available should not be limited by which industries an Australian immigration bureaucrat thinks are most needy ... The migration of low-skilled labourers can have just as significant a benefit on development - through remittances - as high-skilled workers.
"Bu cutting off migrants because of their skill level, we cut off this road out poverty."
(Source: BRW April 22-28 2010)
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