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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.

 

Next week: Skills shortages: How is a skills shortage, for any occupation, defined and assessed? How are official skills priority lists compiled? How are differences in skills shortages between major cities and regional Australia accounted for?

If you have a view on the current state of Australia’s skilled migration program then I would love to hear it for potential inclusion in an upcoming blog in this series. Please contact me via [email protected]

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