Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Gillard playing chicken with skilled migrants


457 visa documentWhen Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a crackdown on the 457 visa scheme, not a few people were left aghast.

Stakeholder organisations such as the Migration Institute, Business Council of Australia, Australian Industry Group, and Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry called for the language to be toned down.

Analysts including Michael Pascoe and Bernard Keane excoriated the politicisation of the scheme. On cue, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott described the move as an 'assault on foreigners'.

There is dismay within the Labor caucus itself over the rhetoric, if not the policy. Two of the Government's own advisers on skilled immigration point out that the numbers of skilled migrants, the nature and location of their work, and the areas of skills shortage do not match the heightened rhetoric around 'queues'.

On the other hand, former One Nation MP Pauline Hanson says she 'totally agrees' with the Prime Minister.

At a glance, the Federal Government seems to have shot itself in the foot. Again.

To understand why Gillard is prosecuting the tightening of 457 visa rules so aggressively and exposing herself to claims of xenophobia, we only need look to her speech last month at the AWU national conference. She is not, she said, leader of a party called the 'Progressive', 'Moderate', or even 'Social Democratic Party', but of 'the party called the Labor Party deliberately'; 'that is where we come from, that is what we believe in, that is who we are'.

In other words, the Prime Minister is on a campaign to impress her party's blue-collar base. This campaign wasn't launched last month in Western Sydney; it was kick-started as far back as 2011 when she stated that the 'Australian Greens do not share Australian values'.

Under Gillard, Labor is shedding its angst over 'narrative' and identity by appealing to — or rather, appeasing — its 'traditional' members, many of whom have never been comfortable with the idea of foreign workers, whether outsourced or inbound. Whether it is going back to the future or merely going backwards, time will tell. It is certainly ceding whatever remains of its white-collar, progressive supporters to other parties and independents.

This much can be confirmed by Gillard's extraordinary attack on the IT industry as culprits in the overuse of the 457 visa. This attack doesn't bear scrutiny. Against the backdrop of inadequate software development training in high schools, underfunded universities, and an immature environment for venture capitalism, the number of domestic IT students in fact halved during the years from 2003–2010.

If this were a 'which came first' question, the PM has chosen the chicken. It seems like the wrong answer. It is certainly naïve to assume that Australian IT undergrads are naturally competitive in an industry that is plugged into the rest of the world. The international labour market ultimately arbitrates IT qualifications, not protectionist governments. This may well apply to most industries this century, as workplaces become more complex.

In any case, the miasma around the 457 visa can hardly dissipate while it is being actively pumped out. Labor supporters claiming that the language is not xenophobic must not have heard the trigger words, or may have fallen deaf from long-term overuse of 'queue' and 'foreign'. These seemingly innocuous words pack quite a message in combination. Throw in the word 'rort' — who cares if only two or three per cent exploit the system? — and we have a Pavlovian trifecta.

The reality is that the 457 visa has significant restrictions, including being applicable only to highly skilled workers. Nearly two thirds of visa holders have a university degree or a post-graduate qualification, belying fear-mongering in the trades sector. Moreover, migration has been shown to improve wages, according to Professor Peter McDonald, who is on the Ministerial Advisory Council on Skilled Immigration.

The scheme is not 'out of control' as Gillard claims. There are significant disincentives to employing foreign workers including cost, which suggests it is not a decision taken lightly. Employers are in fact monitored, with infringement notices rising from nine in the period 2010–2011 to 49 in 2011–2012 (out of 22,450 businesses).

Finally, according to the latest seasonally adjusted estimates by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there have been increases in full-time and part-time employment as well as workforce participation. The unemployment rate is remarkably low and steady, in contrast to other countries. It is hard to make a case that jobs are somehow being ripped from local workers when the economy is this healthy.

But all these facts do not matter. Confirmation bias against foreigners has been locked and loaded. How sadder would it be for Labor if it loses this year's election holding this smoking gun. 

Fatima Measham headshotFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator, and tweeter

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, 457 Visas, racism, asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, Scott Morrison, Chris Bowen



submit a comment

Existing comments

20% of the Australian workforce is in IT (ACS figures) but our universities are woefully under resourced and are producing way too few graduates. Of 12000 IT grads, 8000 are overseas students who pay for their education directly. As an IT manager, does Gillard expect me to dumb down my requirements? Or are we to persist in our "clever country" efforts? If I'm forced to hire unskilled locals, the few skilled locals we have will move to the US where they're welcomed and valued - and get to work with other smart people. The law of unintended consequences says this will NOT reduce local unemployment but will dumb down our economy. Just this week I advertised for software developers. Of the resumes I got, only two were not recent migrants. Only one of those was even close to the quality I'm looking for. 457s are not a rort (only 0.2% of companies with 457s got an infringement notice). They are often the only way we can keep this country clever. This is a plain and simple "non racist" appeal to the anti immigration loudmouths.

Josh Hillman | 19 March 2013  

Fatima, it is a great article and needed to be said.Shades of Howards " Children overbaord " strategy but we wait to see if it benefits the governnment later this year.Sad reflection on us as a nation if it does. Expediency over principle . Unfortunaterly getting use to it now.

Anthony Kerin | 20 March 2013  

Hmmm Nadine, I suggest you take a wander down to the nearest building site and have a look at the workforce. There are large number of Chinese and other Asian workers brought in as carpenters, joiners, plasterers etc. but on-site seemingly working as builder's labourers.
Good people who work hard but who are almost impossible to unionise and don't make a fuss about working conditions or health and safety issues for fear of losing their jobs and visas.
Have a chat to an organiser from any of the building unions; 457 workers are being used to undermine conditions and to further weaken the apprentice system in this country.
It is not the 457 workers fault and I have not actually seen any 'demonising' of the workers themselves by government spokespersons.
As to the 457 being restricted to "highly skilled" workers only, take a look at the list
- bed and breakfast operator? goat farmer? florist?
I can't find an occupation not on the list.
Abuse and misuse of visas are an ongoing problem for Australia, to equate attempts at maintaining a system that is fair to all parties is in no way the equivalent of Howard's 'Children Overboard' strategy, as does Antony Kerin, does a disservice to those who suffered at that time.

chris g | 20 March 2013  

Todays' "foreigner" is tomorrow's Australian citizen.The us and them thinking undermines the cohesion in our multicultural society and harms the most vulnerable... the asylum seekers who come by boat( as is their legal right) and are overwhelmingly assessed to be refugees fleeing persecution.

frederika steen | 20 March 2013  

There is no skills shortage in Australia at all. It is more a question of acceptable work conditions and practises in line with expectations regarding "productivity". You know, it is a terrible thing when an Australian Prime Minister when doing the right thing is "exposing herself to claims of xenophobia" simply because she is trying to protect the rights of Australian workers to a fair wage and fair conditions. Fatima Measham would be better to wonder why employers who opt for 457 visas cannot recruit or keep Australian workers. When Fatima Measham claims that our unemployment rate is "remarkably" low and steady this is not only untrue(I guess she is comparing Australia with extreme economic cases like Spain), it is still no argument for importing foreign labor at the expense of Australian labor. This is the problem with poverty in Australia. It is hidden. And some people will believe therefore it doesn't exist. I invite Fatima Measham to visit any CentreLink office before trying to claim that "It is hard to make a case that jobs are somehow being ripped from local workers when the economy is this healthy". If you want facts, Fatima Measham, don't believe everything you read in the press, you don't have to walk too far to see them for yourself!

DavidSt | 21 March 2013  

I have consistently brought abuse of the 457 visa issue to my Senator in the past to no avail.My nephew, a highly skilled tradesman had been bringing abuses to my attention where 457 workers were working unsafely due to the intimidation of employers threats to cancel their visas. I am pleased Prime Minister Gillard has finally moved on the issue

Maracas | 22 March 2013  

But Maracas, she was blaming the workers instead of the bosses doing the rorting.

Marilyn | 24 March 2013  

Similar Articles

Watching as Iraq crumbled

  • Donna Mulhearn
  • 20 March 2013

I sat with my Iraqi friend in his photo store. I was his last customer, he said; the bombs would begin tomorrow. And then he began to weep. I remember thinking that his life, and the lives of others like him, would not be given a second's thought once the invasion started. The next day, the bombs began.  


Why we didn't stop the war

  • Justin Whelan
  • 20 March 2013

Iraq was the first war in history to be declared unjust by the people and by almost all Christian leaders in the West before it had started. One poll found that 90 per cent of Australians opposed the war without UN authorisation. Yet under John Howard's leadership we went to war anyway. Where did the anti-war movement go wrong?