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Temporary migration program has failed overseas students and workers

James Shackell

Mon Oct 10 2011


AUSTRALIA’S temporary migration program has failed many overseas students and workers, says a leading academic.

Peter Mares, research fellow at Swinburne University of Technology and host of ABC Radio National program The National Interest,  explained his concerns in a recent address as part of the Australian Senate’s Occasional Lecture series.

“Australia’s migration program is changing in quite fundamental ways,” Mares says.

“We are moving to a situation where a large number of people live and work in Australia on a long term temporary basis.

“They pay taxes and contribute to our economy and society but they are ineligible for most government services and have no representation in our political system.”

According to the Department of Immigration and Statistics, there are more than 1 million working non-citizens in Australia today, about 5 per cent of the population.

Despite their prevalence, or perhaps because of it, Mares believes many of these people are at risk from recent changes in government migration policy.

For example the Working Holiday Scheme, once a tool to promote tourism and encourage cultural exchange, has increasingly been used by the government to stop-up gaps in the labour market.

Young people that are part of the scheme are now eligible for a second 12  month visa if they undertake at least three months of “specified work” in an “eligible regional Australian area”.

Mares notes with concern that “the list of industries that qualify as ‘specified work’ has been repeatedly extended and now includes plant and animal cultivation, fishing and pearling, tree farming and felling, mining and construction”.

“There is a risk that temporary migrant workers will be more open to exploitation and abuse because they do not have the same rights as citizens, particularly if their visa status is linked to their employment status,” he says.

In a recent unpublished departmental survey, it was found more than a third of working holiday makers are being paid less than the federal minimum wage.

For international students, the problem is more complicated.

The government’s move this year towards “priority processing” for permanent residency applications has resulted in many students facing an indefinite wait for their claim to be approved.

Instead of being processed in the order they apply, applicants are now categorised into priority groups based on the country’s perceived labour needs.

“In effect it is like being at the back of a queue and never moving forward, watching helplessly as newcomers constantly join the line ahead of you,” Mares says.

“The changes were applied to visa applications that had already been lodged, with the result that tens of thousands of aspiring migrants are facing indefinite limbo.”

“They are stuck in ‘Category 5′ – the lowest priority group – and any new higher-priority application entering the system is processed ahead of them.”

A similar problem faces many temporary migrant workers on 457 visas, whose rising numbers threaten to overwhelm the system.

“Given that the permanent migration intake is capped and the temporary migration intake is not, there is a risk here of an accumulating level of unmet demand – that is, of an emerging backlog of 457 visa holders who are seeking to become permanent residents but whose numbers overwhelm the annual permanent migration intake,” Mares says.

“In such a situation these 457 visa holders could well find themselves stuck indefinitely in a processing queue while they wait for their applications to be considered: exactly the situation that has arisen in relation to international student graduates in priority processing category 5.”

Mares’ concern is that these migrant groups represent a growing demographic of “permanent temporary” residents: people used by the government to prop up Australia’s labour shortages, but who are owed few rights under our political and social systems.

“There is a risk that temporary migrants will be regarded as a useful economic input that can be discarded when no longer required,” he says.

“The terms of the deal are clear: come to Australia to study, work, live for a period of time and while there may be the potential of permanent residency down the track, that is not an automatic right or expectation.”

The transcript of Peter Mares’ lecture can be downloaded (pdf). Find out also about his views on priority processing, and his concerns with the recent Knight Review proposals.

Want to stay on in Melbourne but don’t know how? Wondering if you’re eligible for a temporary or permanent residency? What do the visa changes mean for you? Will employers hire international students? Have all your questions answered at Meld’s upcoming Career and PR Talk on Wednesday October 26, 6pm at Winners Hall, Ground Floor, 488 Swanston St, Carlton. It’s free! To reserve your spot, email