Carrington Clarke: Mass immigration undercutting wages

By Leith van Onselen

After last year demolishing Scott Morrison over Australia’s mass immigration ‘Big Australia’ policy (video above), the ABC’s Carrington Clarke has today penned an article explaining how flooding the labour market through mass immigration is eroding workers’ wages:

Although the direct relationship between wages and immigration is not clear, all other things being equal, in the short term an increase of the supply of labour through high migration should mean lower wages growth.

This is because there are more people vying for work and so businesses don’t have to pay as much.

Some academics argue that Australia must maintain high immigration in order to avoid a skills shortage in the future. Professor Peter McDonald argues that without high immigration there won’t be enough workers to fill the jobs being created.

Yet, according to the most recent data, there are about 680,000 unemployed Australians and an additional 1 million Australians who have a job, but would like more hours.

This is a large pool of people who could be either trained up for new roles if businesses and the government were willing to invest.

Hiring foreign workers might be cheaper for an individual business, but doesn’t help those currently looking for a job.

When some people talk about a “skills shortage” they mean a business is unable to find a worker for a role for the pay and conditions they are willing to offer.

If there was truly a skills shortage then the laws of supply and demand should mean that the price for the scarce resource, in this case labour, would rise to attract more people into the job. The wages data show this simply isn’t happening in most industries.

Various Productivity Commission modelling has shown that immigration lowers the wages of incumbent workers (see here). These results were confirmed recently by modelling from Victoria University (see here). Several notable Australian economists have noted similar.

It is basic economics that if you stem the flow of foreign workers, then workers’ bargaining power will increase. This was explained last year by The Australia Institute’s chief economist, Richard Denniss, when he noted that the very purpose of foreign worker visas is to “suppress wage growth by allowing employers to recruit from a global pool of labour to compete with Australian workers”.  That is, in a normal functioning labour market, “when demand for workers rises, employers would need to bid against each other for the available scarce talent”. But this mechanism has been bypassed by enabling employers to recruit labour globally. “It is only in recent years that the wage rises that accompany the normal functioning of the labour market have been rebranded as a ‘skills shortage'”.

Economist, Stephen Koukoulas, noted similar recently on Twitter:

Whereas data from the Department of Jobs and Small Business also shows that actual skills shortages across Australia are running near recessionary levels:

However, the last word must go to the new research by Labour economists in the book entitled The Wages Crisis in Australia, which details in all its hideous glory how the great Australian migrant wage rort is unambiguously lowering employment standards and undercutting local workers.

Below are key excepts from Chapter 13 entitled Temporary migrant workers (TMWs), underpayment and predatory business models, written by Iain Campbell:

This chapter argues that the expansion of temporary labour migration is a significant development in Australia and that it has implications for wage stagnation…

Three main facts about their presence in Australia are relevant to the discussion of wage stagnation. First, there are large numbers of TMWs in Australia, currently around 1.2 million persons. Second, those numbers have increased strongly over the past 15 years. Third, when employed, many TMWs are subject to exploitation, including wage payments that fall below — sometimes well below — the minimum levels specified in employment regulation…

One link to slow wages growth, as highlighted by orthodox economics, stems from the simple fact of increased numbers, which add to labour supply and thereby help to moderate wages growth. This chapter argues, however, that the more salient point concerns the way many TMWs are mistreated within the workplace in industry sectors such as food services, horticulture, construction, personal services and cleaning. TMW underpayments, which appear both widespread in these sectors and systemic, offer insights into labour market dynamics that are also relevant to the general problem of slow wages growth…

Official stock data indicate that the visa programmes for international students, temporary skilled workers and working holiday makers have tripled in numbers since the late 1990s… In all, the total number of TMWs in Australia is around 1.2 million persons. If we include New Zealand citizens and permanent residents, who can enter Australia under a special subclass 444 visa, without time limits on their stay and with unrestricted work rights (though without access to most social security payments), then the total is close to 2 million persons… TMWs now make up around 6% of the total Australian workforce…

Decisions by the federal Coalition government under John Howard to introduce easier pathways to permanent residency for temporary visa holders, especially international students and temporary skilled workers, gave a major impetus to TMW visa programmes.

Most international students and temporary skilled workers, together with many working holiday makers, see themselves as involved in a project of ‘staggered’ or ‘multi-step’ migration, whereby they hope to leap from their present status into a more long-term visa status, ideally permanent residency. One result, as temporary migration expands while the permanent stream remains effectively capped, is a lengthening queue of onshore applicants for permanent residency…

Though standard accounts describe Australian immigration as oriented to skilled labour, this characterisation stands at odds with the abundant evidence on expanding temporary migration and the character of TMW jobs. It is true that many TMWs, like their counterparts in the permanent stream, are highly qualified and in this sense skilled. However, the fact that their work is primarily in lower-skilled jobs suggests that it is more accurate, as several scholars point out, to speak of a shift in Australia towards a de facto low-skilled migration programme

A focus on raw numbers of TMWs may miss the main link to slow wages growth. It is the third point concerning underpayments and predatory business models that seems richest in implications. This point suggests, first and most obviously, added drag on wages growth in sectors where such underpayments and predatory business models have become embedded. If they become more widely practised, underpayments pull down average hourly wages. If a substantial number of firms in a specific labour market intensify strategies of labour cost minimisation by pushing wage rates below the legal floor, it can unleash a dynamic of competition around wage rates that foreshadows wage decline rather than wage growth for employees…

Increases in labour supply allow employers in sectors already oriented to flexible and low-wage employment, such as horticulture and food services, to sustain and extend strategies of labour cost minimisation… The arguments and evidence cited above suggest a spread of predatory business models within low-wage industries.37 They suggest an unfolding process of degradation in these labour markets…

And below are extracts from Chapter 14, entitled Is there a wages crisis facing skilled temporary migrants?, by Joanna Howe:

Scarcely a day goes by without another headline of wage theft involving temporary migrant workers…

In this chapter we explore a largely untold story in relation to temporary migrant workers… it exposes a very real wages crisis facing workers on the Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visa (formerly the 457 visa) in Australia. This crisis has been precipitated by the federal government’s decision to freeze the salary floor for temporary skilled migrant workers since 2013… the government has chosen to put downward pressure on real wages for temporary skilled migrants, thereby surreptitiously allowing the TSS visa to be used in lower-paid jobs…

In Australia, these workers are employed via the TSS visa and they must be paid no less than a salary floor. This salary floor is called the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold (TSMIT). TSMIT was introduced in 2009 in response to widespread concerns during the Howard Government years of migrant worker exploitation. This protection was considered important because an independent review found that many 457 visa workers were not receiving wages equivalent to those received by Australian workers…

In effect, TSMIT is intended to act as a proxy for the skill level of a particular occupation. It prevents unscrupulous employers misclassifying an occupation at a higher skill level in order to employ a TSS visa holder at a lower level…

TSMIT’s protective ability is only as strong as the level at which it is set. In its original iteration back in 2009, it was set at A$45 220. This level was determined by reference to average weekly earnings for Australians, with the intention that TSMIT would be pegged to this because the Australian government considered it ‘important that TSMIT keep pace with wage growth across the Australian labour market’. This indexation occurred like clockwork for five years. But since 1 July 2013, TSMIT has been frozen at a level of A$53 900. ..

There is now a gap of more than A$26 000 between the salary floor for temporary skilled migrant workers and annual average salaries for Australian workers. This means that the TSS visa can increasingly be used to employ temporary migrant workers in occupations that attract a far lower salary than that earned by the average Australian worker. This begs the question — is the erosion of TSMIT allowing the TSS visa to morph into a general labour supply visa rather than a visa restricted to filling labour market gaps in skilled, high-wage occupations?..

But why would employers go to all the effort of hiring a temporary migrant worker on a TSS visa over an Australian worker?

Renowned Australian demographer Graeme Hugo observed that employers ‘will always have a “demand” for foreign workers if it results in a lowering of their costs’.17 The simplistic notion that employers will only go to the trouble and expense of making a TSS visa application when they want to meet a skill shortage skims over a range of motives an employer may have for using the TSS visa. These could be a reluctance to invest in training for existing or prospective staff, or a desire to move towards a deunionised workforce. Additionally, for some employers, there could be a belief that, despite the requirement that TSS visa workers be employed on equivalent terms to locals, it is easier to avoid paying market salary rates and conditions for temporary migrant workers who have been recognised as being in a vulnerable labour market position. A recent example of this is the massive underpayments of chefs and cooks employed by Australia’s largest high-end restaurant business, Rockpool Dining Group, which found that visa holders were being paid at levels just above TSMIT but well below the award when taking into account the amount of overtime being done…

Put simply, temporary demand for migrant workers often creates a permanent need for them in the labour market. Research shows that in industries where employers have turned to temporary migrants en masse, it erodes wages and conditions in these industries over time, making them less attractive to locals…

A national survey of temporary migrant workers found that 24% of 457 visa holders who responded to the survey were paid less than A$18 an hour.  Not only are these workers not being paid in according with TSMIT, but they are also receiving less than the minimum wage. A number of cases also expose creative attempts by employers to subvert TSMIT. Given the challenges many temporary migrants face in accessing legal remedies, these cases are likely only scratching the surface in terms of employer non-compliance with TSMIT…

Combined, then, with the problems with enforcement and compliance, it is not hard to conclude that the failure to index TSMIT is contributing to a wages crisis for skilled temporary migrant workers… So the failure to index the salary floor for skilled migrant workers is likely to affect wages growth for these workers, as well as to have broader implications for all workers in the Australian labour market.

We must also recognise that the permanent migrant system is also being systemically rorted. This is evidenced by the fact that not one of the top five occupations granted permanent visas in the skilled stream in 2017-18 were in labour shortage over the past four years, according to the Department of Jobs and Small Business’ “historical list of skills shortages in Australia”.

Clearly, Australia’s ‘skilled’ immigration system is one giant rort that’s all about lowering labour costs for employers by crushing wages and abrogating their responsibility for training, while also feeding the growth lobby more consumers.

It needs root-and-branch reform, starting with dramatically lowering the overall permanent migrant intake, as well as setting a wage floor for ‘skilled’ migrants at the 80th to 90th percentile of earnings, thus ensuring the scheme is used sparingly by employers on only the highest skilled migrants, not as a general labour market tool for accessing cheap foreign labour and eliminating the need for training.

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