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Australia’s use of immigrant labour, whether via working holiday visas, the Seasonal Workers Program, the Pacific Labour Scheme or the skilled migration program has never been far from controversy.

Last year it was the harsh reality that many farmers and growers refused to employ Australians for fruit picking and other agricultural work despite saying they were desperate for seasonal workers.

This year Fairfax journalists have published a number of in-depth articles detailing the murky world of recruitment practises of labour hire firms responsible for supplying workers to different abattoirs around Australia.

Most recently a long article by Richard Baker and Wing Kuang published last Tuesday delved into the recent action by the Department of Home Affairs probing allegations that foreign meatworkers might be unwitting victims in a form of visa fraud initiated by labour hire companies who, for a fee, promise a path to permanent residency.

The central allegation is the false claims being made by the agencies as to the workers’ English language skills and meat industry experience. As the article explains Proficiency in English and three years’ relevant workplace experience are the minimum requirements for a skilled migrant visa.

It seems that willingness to pay a fee for the chance of a new life as a future Australian permanent resident is the only selection criteria for sub-agents in China who then refer the worker, complete with a falsified resume, to the labour hire company in Australia.

The recruitment syndicates are well-funded and ruthless competitors who take a cut every step along the way. It is alleged some workers have paid $70,000 for a job then pay more for housing and rental of furniture.

Tax Office documents filed as part of Federal Court action revealed that the biggest labour hire syndicate is headed by Chinese businessman Zu Neng “Scott” Shi whose companies have earned $350 million over nine years by providing workers to 42 Australian abattoirs.

As the Fairfax journalists report:

“A six-month investigation by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald has uncovered much more than just dubious recruiting. Industry insiders, documents, and photographic evidence have shown how some labour hire operators have potentially corrupted the approvals system by paying bribes to some meat industry managers and, in a few extreme cases, providing them with alcohol and prostitutes as inducements. And some skills assessors entrusted by the government to certify applicants also have financial skin in the game of bringing labourers from overseas.”

This investigation highlights, yet again, how poorly Australia’s skilled migration program is doing in fulfilling its objectives.

The specifics of the program’s inadequacies were laid bare last month when the Federal Government released its report into Australia’s skilled migration program.

The purpose of the parliamentary committee (10 members from a range of political parties across both the House of Representatives and the Senate) was to investigate and report on the national skilled migration program as to whether it is meeting its intended objectives, including:

  1. If any immediate adjustments are necessary in the context of the future of work and pandemic recovery, and
  2. If more long-term structural changes are warranted;

Commissioned in February 2021 the committee’s terms of reference covered such areas as differences between regional and urban labour markets as well as the administrative aspects of the program including relevance, timeliness, responsiveness, cost, and complexity.

The report contains 18 recommendations made from the committee’s review of the following areas of Australia’s Skilled Migration program.

This week I start with Recommendation #1 from the report. Over the next few weeks, I will be highlighting another seven of the report’s recommendations relevant to the recruitment industry and providing some brief commentary.

i) A national plan

Recommendation #1: Create a national plan to co-ordinate the efforts of State and Federal Governments to ensure Australia’s persistent skills shortages and future workforce needs are addressed through Australia’s higher education and vocational education systems, employment services and the skilled migration program.

Why?: The current approach is ad-hoc with different governments often using different data sets to inform solutions to problems that are commonly much broader in geographic or sector applicability. For example, making decisions at that particular occupations are in ‘approximate balance’ nationally masks shortages in regional areas due to an oversupply in capital cities.

My comment: In theory, a national plan sounds great but in practise I have serious doubts that all the relevant stakeholders would willingly cede their existing authority and then co-ordinate effectively enough to achieve the objectives of a national plan.

It is more feasible, and faster, to empower appropriate local authorities to make decisions appropriate to their jurisdiction and then have national oversight for reporting, integrity, and coordination purposes. I suspect the bottom-up response beats the top-down approach almost every time.

Part 2

ii) New occupations

Recommendation #2: The National Skills Commission (NSC) should develop a new occupation and/or skills identification system for the skilled migration program in consultation with industry to replace the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO).

Why? If an occupation is not listed on ANZSCO, the Federal Government will be unable to report on the occupation being in demand as technically it does not exist.

The ANZSCO was never intended for use in assessing workers for a skilled migration program, it was developed as a tool to facilitate the international comparison of occupational statistics and to provide a basis for the standard collection and dissemination of occupational data

It is often difficult for specialist and emerging roles to determine which, if any, classification is suitable. ANZSCO has no capacity to cater to industries of the future and provide a framework to support innovation in Australia.

The ANZSCO has not had a major update since 2006, and 2013 was the last year in which a minor update was completed. Although the ABS (who along with Statistics New Zealand is responsible for the list) recognises the massive changes in the labour market since 2006 it says it simply does not have the resources required to undertake the significant work, such as extensive data analysis and extensive consultation, such a major update would require. As the ABS submission pointedly remarks “it’s more complicated than just adding some extra names or job titles into that classification”.

What’s happened recently? In September 2020, the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL) was added to the existing skilled occupation lists. The PMSOL identifies occupations that are considered to be critical for the recovery of the Australian economy, based on expert labour market advice from the NSC. Employer sponsored visa applications involving PMSOL occupations receive priority processing and may be considered for exemption from travel restrictions.

Initially, the PMSOL included 17 occupations, mostly relating to the medical field. In the subsequent twelve months, 27 additional occupations have been added, predominantly drawn from the medical, engineering accounting, and IT sectors.

Clearly stung by the chorus of criticism the ANZSCO was receiving the ABS announced, on 25 March 2021, it had commenced a program of work to conduct a targeted update of ANZSCO focused on occupations associated with the agriculture, forestry, and fisheries sectors, cyber security, and naval ship building. Following this update, the ABS said that other sectors will be reviewed using this targeted approach in the future.

The NSC is helping take some of the load off the ABS by developing a Skilled Priority List (SPL) with a goal of helping policy makers understand the skilled workforce needs of the Australian economy to better inform policy responses (e.g. training, employer incentives, and migration).

A potential future: The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released a report, based on 2014 data, suggesting an overall nursing workforce shortage of over 80,000 nurses by 2025 and over 120,000 nurses by 2030. This has not been updated since.

Furthermore, the Department of Health released Registered Nurse (RN) workforce data stating that in 2019 there were 31,613 nurses working in aged care across the country, a growth of only 9.4 per cent since 2016. Yet it is estimated that by 2050 a further 180,000 to 200,000 nurses will be required in the aged-care sector alone.

My comment: The unsuitability of ANZSCO codes for use in the assessment of skill shortages and its subsequent use in the way these ANZSCO codes farcically inhibit employers (due to the conditions under which a skilled migrant visa is issued) is evidenced by the following submission from the Migration Institute of Australia (MIA):

If a hospital has sponsored a registered nurse under the registered nurse – medical (code ANZSCO 254418), they are unable to deploy that nurse to work under any other specialisation within the hospital (eg registered nurse – surgical; code ANZSCO 254424) because it is unlawful to employ the sponsored worker in a different role to which they are sponsored under the conditions of the employment sponsorship and the visa.

Summing it up (from Atlassian and Canva’s submission): In our view ANZSCO should not be the determiner of an ‘occupation’ or role for the purposes of nominating someone for a visa.

Recruitment industry comment:

Fred Molloy (Registered Migration Agent and MD, Konnecting Group):

“The ANZSCO system has been heavily criticised as being antiquated, and not agile. While I accept there needs to be an overhaul, the creation of another “immigration specific” list will not, in the long term, solve the problem. Government and all relevant stakeholders need a base list. A completely revamped, yet agile and flexible ANZSCO system makes more sense.

This should be the master list for all reporting by government agencies and departments such as the ABS, Department of Jobs, Department of Home Affairs etc. This will ensure each party is working from the same base list.”

Part 3 in this series will cover; defining skills shortages, the pathway to permanent residency for skilled migrants, and the differences between the major cities and regional Australia with respect to rules and obligations of the existing skilled migration program.

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