Despite being largely immune from the economic woes that afflict flyover America and northern England, Australia is by no means immune from the present worldwide levels of hysteria about migrants taking our jerbs.

We also have a struggling centre-right Prime Minister, who is beseiged by the far-right headbangers who dominate his party (and, to a very limited and not-worth-bothering-with extent, by fringe groups beyond his party), but who is largely reliant on corporates and wealthy businessmen for funding.

And we have a Labor party that, while substantially more competent than its centre-left peers worldwide, is not above resorting to a bit of jerbs scaremongering.

These factors have conspired to create today’s announcement of a new skilled migration policy (PDF) that is being spun as a way to address jerbs worries, but is cruel to migrants, massively beneficial to shady employers, and does nothing to address job worries. Oh, and creates a new class of indentured serfs.

The points-based system that isn’t

Politicians outside Australia tend to bang on about an “Australian-style points-based migration” system. This was particularly popular in the UK’s Brexit campaign, floated by politicians like Boris Johnson as they attempted to lie that Brexit wasn’t entirely based on stuffing over immigrants.

The idea as sold is generally along the lines of a credit score, with a migrant getting 20 points for a BA degree, 20 points for English-speaking, 20 points for family ties, and so on, with people who get over a certain numerical cut-off being allowed in.

The only problem with this description of the system: it isn’t how migration to Australia works.

Only 23% of permanent migrants in total arrive as skilled independent workers. 32% of permanent migrants come based on family (the vast majority of these are the spouse of an Australian citizen), and the remainding half are are skilled migrants who are sponsored either by an employer or by regional governments.

Even the skilled independent visa programme isn’t points-based in the sense that laypeople tend to assume. It only accepts applications from people within a narrow specific list of occupations (now called the MLTSSL), which is heavily based on immediate short-term need. If you’re a university lecturer or a dental technician, it doesn’t matter that you’ve got double the points cut-off, you ain’t coming in. Only if you’re on the list does the points-based filtering apply.

The other visa programmes aren’t points-based at all. They rely on either an employer or a regional government making a case that they need to recruit someone to cover a particular skill shortage, and then applying for a visa on behalf of the succesful applicant.

457 problems but a rort ain’t one

The largest single part of Australia’s skilled migration intake is delivered by a route that’s generally refered to as the 457 program, because of the initial visa subclass used by people who migrate by this route.

The Australian Parliament has prepared an excellent and clear report explaining how this visa class works. Very basically, it involves an employer advertising a skilled vacancy, failing to find an Australian citizen or permanent resident candidate who is up to the job, and instead applying for a foreign citizen to get a visa on their behalf.

The job must be on a list of skilled professions (now called the Combined MLTSSL-STSOL), but this is much broader than the list for independent migration. The visa sponsorship lasts for four years, is renewable for another four, and at any point after the employee has been in position for two or more years they can apply for employer-sponsored permanent residency. Once this is granted, they are able to stay indefinitely in Australia.

As the Parliament report notes, there are some concerns about this procedure.

Most of the concerns about keeping locals out of jobs and allowing underpayment are nonsense crocodile tears: there is a salary floor that’s above the average wage and a market testing of the position’s salary, alongside English-speaking, character, work experience, educational and qualification requirements. Together, these should (and generally do) ensure that employers don’t take the piss.

The more significant concern is the position that this status leaves the individual migrant in: if they are fired or resign, then they lose their right to remain in Australia. In the early days of the program, migrants who lost their jobs had to leave within 30 days; this was increased to 90 by the last Labor government and cut back to 60 by the current government.

As well as leaving migrants in this position vulnerable to retrenchment, it also means that their employer has worrying levels of workplace power: you’ll stick out an abusive, exploitative boss for a lot longer if the alternative is being deported than if the alternative is merely telling him to bugger off. Although it’s relatively easy to monitor job specifications and wages paid, it’s much harder to tell if someone is ‘voluntarily‘ working for 60 hours a week instead of 38 – especially if they’re in a managerial or desk job.

There have also been a small number of cases where employers have got away (generally not for very long) with flagrantly taking the piss, in ways such as paying workers below their contracted wage, or putting them in completely different industries or job types from the visa-specified one.

In order to save the workers, we had to destroy them

So the 457 program has two problems, one of which is enforcement-based – in that not enough is being done to catch employers who lie about market testing, or who collude with employees to lie about qualifications on recruitment, or who systemically underpay, overwork and abuse in ways that are documented – and one of which is inherent to the visa type.

Does the government’s announcement today address them?

First, it’s important to note the announcement is extremely misleading, because of the government’s weird pathological need to bash Labor over everything. It is being spun as an abolition of the 457 program, but it isn’t.

It’s a renaming of the program to the TSS (Temporary Skills Shortage) visa, some fairly minor changes to enforcement and eligible occupations, and finally a split of the program into two streams which will have very different outcomes for migrants. For administrative reasons, the formal renaming of the program and some of the enforcement changes won’t kick in fully until March 2018. But the occupation changes and the split of the streams has immediate effect.

There’s nothing really wrong with the enforcement or occupation changes. The announcement exaggerates the extent to which rules were being broken before, but rules like checking visa class against tax records to make sure contractual wages are actually getting paid are fairly sensible, and the changes to enforcement all fall into this bracket. The change in the occupation lists mostly removes duplicate and silly classifications, without significantly reducing eligibility.

Unfortunately, the biggest change to the program does the complete diametric exact opposite of what the program needs.

Prior to 18 April 2017, the list of professions used for all 457 applications was the one which is now known as the Combined MLTSSL-SSOL, ie the most comprehensive list. This allowed people to migrate to Australia and make a life here despite being ineligible for the stricter provisions in the MLTSSL, if they were able to demonstrate to an employer that they were the best person for a sponsored job.

From 19 April 2017 onwards, the list for ‘traditional’ 457 applications that provide a four-year visa renewable for four years and include a pathway to permanent residency will shift to the list now called the MLTSSL – the one for people who are eligible for individual skilled migration. This will be called the Medium Stream from next year.

People whose professions are on the Combined but not the MLTSSL list (to be called the Short Stream from next year) will only be eligible for a two-year visa, renewable for two years and which has no pathway at all to permanent residency. They will be booted out of the country after four years with no chance of staying. It’s the same as the kefala system used for ‘expat‘ jobs in the Middle East.

Jobs ranging from CEOs to web designers to university professors are on the Combined list only. Here’s the whole list of jobs where the eligibility to make a life in Australia is being removed. People in all the roles on that list will be still able to work in Australia at an employer’s discretion for up to four years, but will never be able to stay.

The Short Stream ‘reform‘ is a direct sod-you to all the legitimate concerns about the system. While clamping down on the kind of flagrant abuse that a few of the very worst employers were committing, it will empower every employer of an employee on the Short Stream list to squeeze them dry for four years with no hope of recourse. Instead of providing a new group of citizens to contribute to Australia, it will create a caste of serfs who have no loyalty or attachment to the country, and from whom the country certainly doesn’t deserve any.

But I guess Australia’s always been fond of serfing.

Addendum: I haven’t been able to track down data showing how the Medium Stream/Short Stream split will work out in numbers – the analysis at the DIBP site doesn’t go into sufficient detail by position. I will update if I get hold of accurate data – or please comment here or tweet @johnb78 if you have some.

Image: Reeve and Serfs, from Queen Mary’s Psalter / public domain.

2 thoughts on “Australia’s new restricted migration visa rules: serf’s up!

  1. What’s the difference between the “Developer Programmer” who appears on one list and the “Software and Applications Programmer” on the other one?

    (Ahem, asking for a friend…)

    1. Slightly different appraisal criteria; one which almost anyone who’s halfway competent at doing things will be able to get themselves on the list that suits them best. There were about four occupations which I could have qualified for (the one I actually came in on has now been straight-up abolished, which would have been rather nerve-wracking at the time).

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