At Domain, Ross Gittins continues his fake campaign to lift wages today:
Since the global financial crisis, the developed countries, including us, have suffered a decade of exceptionally weak growth.
We’ve had weak consumer spending because of weak wage growth, the product of globalisation and skill-biased technological change, which has diverted much income to those with a lower propensity to consume.
With weak growth in consumer spending, there’s been little incentive to increase business investment rather than return capital to shareholders.
It’s this weakness in business investment spending that’s the most obvious explanation for weak productivity improvement.
..Our econocrats are like the drunk searching for his keys under the lamppost because that’s where the supply-side light shines brightest.
It’s good to see more focus on the wages question. The above analysis is right in general terms. Where it is lacking is examining why Australian wages have been the weakest of all developing economies over this cycle.
Some of it has been the falling terms of trade, a national pay cut shared across the economy, but that is long over yet wages growth has continued to stagnate even as the labour market has tightened.
What Gittins refuses to mention is the key macro variable for wages this economic cycle: the importation of cheap foreign labour. Australia has never run mass immigration into material economic slack before but that’s what we did this time:
What does economics 101 tell us happens when a perpetual supply shock lands on weak demand? Prices fall. This is the smoking gun of weak wages growth. Mass immigration has destroyed Australian labour’s pricing power even as it rewrote industrial relations with floods of cheap foreign workers.
Academic research finally caught up to this reality late last year. 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’. 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.
The micro-economic evidence has been overwhelming for years:
- For years we have seen Dominos, Caltex, 7-Eleven, Woolworths and many other fast food franchises busted for rorting migrant labour.
- The issue culminated in 2016 when the Senate Education and Employment References Committee released a scathing report entitled A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders, which documented systemic abuses of Australia’s temporary visa system for foreign workers.
- Mid last year, ABC’s 7.30 Report ran a disturbing expose on the modern day slavery occurring across Australia.
- Meanwhile, Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), Natalie James, told Fairfax in August last year that people on visas continue to be exploited at an alarming rate, particularly those with limited English-language skills. It was also revealed that foreign workers are involved in more than three-quarters of legal cases initiated by the FWO against unscrupulous employers.
- Then The ABC reported that Australia’s horticulture industry is at the centre of yet another migrant slave scandal, according to an Australian Parliamentary Inquiry into the issue.
- The same Parliamentary Inquiry was told by an undercover Malaysian journalist that foreign workers in Victoria were “brainwashed” and trapped in debt to keep them on farms.
- A recent UNSW Sydney and UTS survey painted the most damning picture of all, reporting that wages theft is endemic among international students, backpackers and other temporary migrants.
- A few months ago, Fair Work warned that most of Western Sydney had become a virtual special economic zone in which two-thirds of businesses were underpaying workers, with the worst offenders being high-migrant areas.
- Dr Bob Birrell from the Australian Population Research Institute latest report, based on 2016 Census data, revealed that most recently arrived skilled migrants (i.e. arrived between 2011 and 2016) cannot find professional jobs, with only 24% of skilled migrants from Non-English-Speaking-Countries (who comprise 84% of the total skilled migrant intake) employed as professionals as of 2016, compared with 50% of skilled migrants from Main English-Speaking-Countries and 58% of the same aged Australian-born graduates. These results accord with a recent survey from the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, which found that 53% of skilled migrants in Western Australia said they are working in lower skilled jobs than before they arrived, with underemployment also rife.
- The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) latest Characteristics of Recent Migrants report, revealed that migrants have generally worse labour market outcomes than the Australian born population, with recent migrants and temporary residents having an unemployment rate of 7.4% versus 5.4% for the Australian born population, and lower labour force participation (69.8%) than the Australian born population (70.2%).
- ABC Radio recently highlighted the absurdity of Australia’s ‘skilled’ migration program in which skilled migrants have grown increasingly frustrated at not being able to gain work in Australia despite leaving their homelands to fill so-called ‘skills shortages’. As a result, they are now demanding that taxpayers provide government-sponsored internships to help skilled migrants gain local experience, and a chance to work in their chosen field.
- In early 2018 the senate launched the”The operation and effectiveness of the Franchising Code of Conduct” owing in part to systematic abuse of migrant labour.
- Then there is new research from the University of Sydney documenting the complete corruption of the temporary visas system, and arguing that Australia running a “de-facto low-skilled immigration policy” (also discussed here at the ABC).
- In late June the government released new laws to combat modern slavery which, bizarrely, imposed zero punishment for enslaving coolies.
- Over the past few months we’ve witnessed widespread visa rorting across cafes and restaurants, including among high end establishments like the Rockpool Group.
- Alan Fels, head of the Migrant Workers Taskforce, revealed that international students are systematically exploited particularly by bosses of the same ethnicity.
The ACTU has now stated this outright as well:
Wright and Constantin (2015) surveyed employers using the 457 visa scheme and found that 86% state that they have experienced challenges recruiting workers locally. Despite identified recruiting difficulties, the survey found that fewer than 1 in one hundred employers surveyed had addressed ‘skill shortages’ by raising the salary being offered. Labour ‘shortages’ should first be addressed through a readjustment in the price of labour – increased wages. An inability to find local workers to work at a specified wage rate, coupled with an unwillingness to offer higher wages, does not necessarily imply a skill shortage – particularly where local workers would be willing and able to work if the wage rate was lifted. This differs from a skill shortage in which there are simply not enough people with a particular skill to meet demand.
The relatively recent availability of a large and vulnerable pool of temporary migrant workers has undoubtedly contributed to current record low levels of wages growth and a growing reluctance by employers to train local workers…
While there are approximately 1.5 million temporary entrants with work rights, the overseas worker team at the Fair Work Ombudsman consists of only 17 full time inspectors to investigate cases of exploitation – over 80,000 visa workers per inspector. Inadequate enforcement and penalties act as an incentive for employers to exploit temporary workers when the benefit from doing so outweighs the cost of the penalty. or where the probability of being caught is sufficiently low….
There have been a range of abuses uncovered which have clearly shown that the entire system is broken. From 7-11 and Domino’s to agriculture, construction, food processing to Coles, Dominos and Caltex, it is clear that the abuses occur in a number of visa classes whether they be students, working holiday makers or visa workers in skilled occupations.
These abuses include: a) Underpayment of wages and superannuation, including being forced to pay back wages b) Abuse ranging from psychological to physical c) Threats of deportation if complaints are made or workers join unions d) Being forced to live in sub-standard conditions
A system predicated overwhelmingly on temporary work cannot create the benefits that migration has been praised for…
Migration intermediaries have a vested interest in inflating demand. Australia has created a massive industry with many migration agents outside of our jurisdiction who cannot be prosecuted for breaches. This mushrooming “migration industry”- a complex and transnational web of agents, lawyers, labour recruiters, accommodation brokers and loan sharks – is currently largely unregulated.
The growth of labour hire operators alongside the migration industry has led to companies seeking to sell temporary migrant workers to employers, creating a fake “Job Network” which preferences temporary workers over Australians.
Ross Gittins used to understand these forces. Then he mysteriously forgot, presumably in support of his immigration-addicted real estate listings employer.
The old Gittins new the truth:
There are at least four counts against the advocates of high immigration. First, their refusal to engage with the academic environmentalists arguing that we’ve exceeded the “carrying capacity” of our old and fragile land. Scientists? What would they know?
Second, they keep asserting high immigration’s great economic benefits, blithely ignoring the lack of evidence. Whenever the Productivity Commission has examined the issue carefully it’s found only small net effects, one way or the other. Its latest modelling found only a “negligible” overall impact.
Third, the advocates not only decline to admit the high social and economic costs that go with high rates of immigration, they decline to accept their share of the tab, doing all they can to shift it to the young, the poor and those on the geographic outer, including many of the migrants.
You rarely hear pro-immigration economists acknowledging the clearest message economic theory gives us on the topic: more population requires more spending on additional public and private infrastructure if material living conditions aren’t to deteriorate.
The more we invest in such “capital widening” to stop the ratio of capital to labour declining, the less scope for investment in “capital deepening” to keep the ratio increasing, and so improving the productivity of our labour.
The fourth criticism of high immigration is that it’s the cheapest and nastiest way to pursue economic growth. You get a bigger economy, but not the promised benefits. The studies repeatedly fail to show high immigration leads to a significant increase in real income per person…
In principle, one productivity-enhancing effect of high immigration is that you get greater human capital on the cheap by pinching it from other (mainly poor) countries… But as Dr Bob Birrell, of the Australian Population Research Institute, has shown, there’s a big gap between the claims made for our skilled migration program and the reality. We let in people whose skills aren’t in high demand, and plenty of them end up driving taxis…
High immigration may suit our rent-seeking business people, but it’s a hell of a way to pursue the professed benefits of economic growth.
Or this past Gittins:
I’ll start by stating upfront where I’m coming from on population: I believe we should do what we can to limit the growth of our population, and do that by focusing largely on immigration…
What are my reasons for favouring limiting immigration to limit our population growth? It’s mainly my concern about the damaging ecological effects of population growth, as much from a global perspective as from a local Australian perspective. But this concern is augmented by my belief that economic growth (ie increase in material standard of living, as conventionally measured by the real growth in GDP per person) does nothing to increase subjective wellbeing (happiness) in developed countries. If so, why pay a social or environmental price to pursue it?..
For a rigorous economic analysis it’s not good enough to simply assume that bigger is better. Why exactly is it better? The conventional answer is that bigger is better if it brings us a higher material standard of living – if it makes us more prosperous. But for this to happen – not necessarily for each individual, but on average, and for the community as a whole – the economy must grow faster than the population grows ie there must be an increase in real GDP per person.But there’s a third layer: even if increased population does lead to higher GDP per person, who shares in that increase? Conventional economics is about self-interest, so for immigration to be justified economically it has to be shown that the pre-existing population benefits from the decision to increase the population. If instead all the benefit went to the immigrants, then the immigration program would be merely an act of charity…
The most recent official attempt to answer those questions came in a report prepared by the Productivity Commission in 2006, Economic Impacts of Migration and Population Growth. Now, the Productivity Commission is a body of impeccable credentials in economic orthodoxy, it’s one of the leading advocates for economic growth and you’d expect it to be very favourably disposed to the belief that immigration makes us better off materially. Which makes its findings all the more significant…
The proposition the PC modelled was the effect of a 50 pc increase in the level of skilled migration over the 20 years to 2024-25. It found that this did cause real GDP to be 4.6 per cent bigger than otherwise in 20 years time. And, yes, this did lead to an increase in real income per person, but the increase was pathetically small: 20 years later real income per person would be 0.7 per cent higher, or $380 a year. The PC found that ‘the distribution of these benefits varies across the population, with gains mostly accrued to the skilled migrants and capital owners. The incomes of existing resident workers grow more slowly than would otherwise be the case’.
The PC concludes that ‘factors other than migration and population growth are more important to growth in productivity and living standards’. Indeed, growth in income per person from technological progress and other sources of productivity growth, and long-term demographic changes, could be expected to be about 1.5 pc per year, or more than $14,000 a year by 2024-25.
So that’s an end point of $380 a year from immigration versus $14,000 a year from technological advance. On this evidence, a rational economic rationalist would have little enthusiasm for population growth. From my perspective, it leaves me confident my opposition to immigration-fed population growth on ecological grounds would not come at any great cost in terms of our material standard of living (or our happiness, for that matter)…
I doubt that it [the modelling] takes sufficient account of the effect of the extra pressures migration creates for the public sector: the extra public infrastructure needed to meet the needs of the bigger population and the greater demands on the budget for services provided to immigrants and their families. This implies a need for higher taxation – paid by the original residents, not just the immigrants. And any delay or foul-up in providing the extra housing, roads, public transport, utilities, schools and hospitals etc could have significant negative effects on road congestion and other aspects of our amenity.
Even more significant, conventional economic analysis abstracts from the effect of economic activity on the natural environment, essentially assuming the environment to be a free good…
Or this Gittins:
The original bipartisanship was a kind of conspiracy. The nation’s business, economic and political elite has always believed in economic growth and, with it, population growth, meaning it has always believed in high immigration…
We can’t continue treating the economy like it exists in splendid isolation from the natural environment. And even when you ignore the environmental consequences, the proposition that population growth makes us better off materially isn’t as self-evident as most business people, economists and politicians want us to accept. Business people like high immigration because it gives them an ever-growing market to sell to and profit from. But what’s convenient for business is not necessarily good for the economy.
Since self-interest is no crime in conventional economics, the advocates of immigration need to answer the question: what’s in it for us? A bigger population undoubtedly leads to a bigger economy (as measured by the nation’s production of goods and services, which is also the nation’s income), but it leaves people better off in narrow material terms only if it leads to higher national income per person.
So does it? The most recent study by the Productivity Commission found an increase in skilled migration led to only a minor increase in income per person, far less than could be gained from measures to increase the productivity of the workforce.
What’s more, it found the gains actually went to the immigrants, leaving the original inhabitants a fraction worse off…
Why doesn’t immigration lead to higher living standards? To shortcut the explanation, because each extra immigrant family requires more capital investment to put them at the same standard as the rest of us: homes to live in, machines to work with, hospitals and schools, public transport and so forth.
Little of that extra physical capital and infrastructure is paid for by the immigrants themselves. The rest is paid for by businesses and, particularly, governments. When the infrastructure is provided, taxes and public debt levels rise. When it isn’t provided, the result is declining standards, rising house prices, overcrowding and congestion.
I suspect the punters’ heightened resentment of immigration arises from governments’ failure to keep up with the housing, transport and other infrastructure needs of the much higher numbers of immigrants in recent years…
Or this Gittins:
Just about every economist, politician and business person is a great believer in a high rate of immigration and a Big Australia. But few of them think about the consequences of that attitude – which does a lot to explain our economic problems…
It shows even our economists have turned off their brains on the question of immigration and lost their way between means and ends. Now they believe in growth for its own sake, not for any benefits it may bring us.
Of course, slower growth in the population means slower growth in the size of the economy. But what of it? What do we lose?
The economic rationale for economic growth is that it raises our material standard of living. But this happens only if GDP grows faster than the population grows. So it doesn’t follow that slower GDP growth caused by slower population growth leaves us worse off materially.
That would be true only if slower population growth caused slower growth in GDP per person. I suspect many people unconsciously assume it does, but where’s the evidence?…
Politicians are always boasting about record government spending on this or that, but never make allowance for population growth in making such claims. (Why would they when often they don’t even allow for the effect of inflation?)
As for the claim that slower population growth will make it harder to reduce the budget deficit, it reveals just how unthinking we’ve become on immigration. It’s true enough that slower growth in the workforce means slower growth in tax collections.
But is that all there is to it? What about the other side of the budget? Aren’t we assuming a bigger population is costless? Skilled immigrants and their dependents never use the health system? They don’t have kids needing to be educated? They don’t add to traffic congestion, wear and tear on roads and 100 other taxpayer-provided services? Since there’s often a delay while they find jobs, who’s to say budgets, federal and state, wouldn’t be better off with fewer immigrants?
But what’s strangest about the economic elite’s unthinking commitment to high immigration is the way they wring their hands over our weak productivity growth and all the “reform” we should be making to fix it, without it crossing their minds that the prime suspect is rapid population growth.
It’s simple: when you increase the population while leaving our stock of household, business and public capital unchanged, you “dilute” that capital. You have less capital per person, meaning you’ve automatically reduced the productivity of labour.
So you have to do a lot more investing in housing, business structures and equipment and all manner of public infrastructure – a lot more “capital widening” – just to stop labour productivity falling…
Lower immigration would help reduce a lot of our economic problems – not to mention our environmental problems (but who cares about them?).
Or this Gittins:
Or this Gittins:
There are many forces pushing down Australian wages growth. But the major key macro and micro factor over this cycle is not in any doubt. It is the importation of cheap foreign labour via both temporary and permanent migration.
It’s disgraceful and corrupt and Gittins should get over himself and say so.
He is also a former gold trader and economic commentator at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, the ABC and Business Spectator. He is the co-author of The Great Crash of 2008 with Ross Garnaut and was the editor of the second Garnaut Climate Change Review.