Australia: Bring in the workers

By Jeffrey Francis

The acuteness of Australia’s shortage of workers is far greater than is generally realised.So much so, there is a strong possibility that the federal government will consider an employer push for creating a “guest worker” scheme to bring in from overseas unskilled workers.

Already, visitors from various countries, including foreign students, are now allowed to change their visa on shore to “temporary residents” to ease the shortage in the hospitality industry, especially in restaurants and cafes.

In a new comprehensive paper published in the latest issue of the Academy of Social Sciences, Prof Peter McDonald, director of Demographic and Social Research Institute of the Australian National University, and Glen Withers, chief executive officer of Universities Australia, called on the government to establish an independent inquiry to determine the best planning and policy role of immigration to meet future needs in the labour force.

McDonald, who is also president-elect (2010-2013) of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, is often consulted on the issue of population futures, and particularly causes, consequences and policies, by governments around the world.

Withers, who is also a consultant and adviser with extensive experience, has been awarded the Order of Australia for his services to applied economics, including the development of the Australian immigration point system.

They pointed out that the continuing strong demands for Australian resources from China, India and other Asian countries will further intensify the current shortage of workers.

Annual growth of the Australian labour force, which has fallen from an average of 1.9% three years ago to currently 1.2%, will drop even further to 0.7% by 2021 and less than 0.5% by 2051.

In the next 20 years, the only way of increasing labour supply is to step up the annual intake of migrants.

To maintain and sustain the labour force at 1.0% a year at least, the net number of migrants to Australia would have to be 227,000 by 2021.

So far, the annual migrant intake has remained at around 144,000 a year with the record highest of 177,600 in the financial year ended last June.

McDonald and Withers urged the government to provide a long-term skill requirement plan based on high quality demographic-economic modelling and industry and state governments’ assessments of emerging industrial needs.

This means that the plan should provide aspirational targeting for education and training policies with regular annual updates.

The two experts also want to know what measures will be taken to ensure that Australian social and economic institutions can adapt to the bigger number of migrants and what skill levels and skill types will be needed to meet future labour requirements.

More importantly, they would like attention to be directed towards the issue of integration although the attitudes of the mainstream community are now much more positive towards immigration.

As a positive strategy, the experts believe that it will continue to be important to recruit skilled migrants so that they will merge smoothly into the Australian labour market.

And, although the experts realised the need for unskilled foreign workers, they expressed caution because the current attitude to such migrants could change if, for some reasons, they remained unemployed for a long period of time.

Quite rightly, they believe that immigration will always be a target for criticism while some Australians, who are economically disadvantaged, remain in the same status.

In this respect, they recommend that immigration should not continue to be expanded unless the public can be assured that all best-practice efforts are being adopted.

This is to ensure that all local residents seeking work, education and training will not be disadvantaged by a focus on new overseas workers as a solution to the shortage of workers.

They see as sensible, worthy and justified for a “guest worker” scheme for the lower skilled workers, especially from the South Pacific islands and Timor Leste in view of Australia’s interests and responsibilities to the islanders.

Currently, however, there is an acute shortage of workers in the hospitality, transport and primary industries that could lead to the extent of lowering the standard of the skill categories.

This is because hotels, transport companies and the rural farms, which will eventually become corporatised, are also facing significant difficulties in employing all levels of workers, whether they are skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled.

They include labourers, cleaners, farm hands, service workers, truck and forklift drivers, machine operators and supervisors.

And they also urged that strict limits be placed on the entry of general unskilled workers whether on a temporary or permanent basis. They are concerned that, without proper planning, the recruitment of low or unskilled migrant workers could create a “second-class” group who will have lower entitlements and lower wages than the workforce generally.

“Such a result could be seen as ‘un-Australian’ and might undermine support for immigration …” they claimed.

“It would also keep some Australian industries from moving to higher value-added production, discouraging better management practices and adoption of new technology, limiting productivity growth.”

Without referring to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s aspirations to build a modern Australia, McDonald and Withers declared that their recommendations represent a major challenge to the “designers of modern Australian immigration policy”.

Jeffrey Francis is editorial consultant, Australasia-Pacific Media

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