Abul Rizvi: Australia becoming a “low-skilled guest worker society”

Abul Rizvi – former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration and one of the architects of Australia’s faux ‘skilled’ migration program – has warned that recent visa changes risk turning Australia into a low-skill guest worker society:

Dr Rizvi has warned that the recent removal of limits on overseas students’ working hours risks subverting international education and reviving the problems of over a decade ago, when enrolments were motivated by migration and work opportunities rather than course quality.

He said foreign students were increasingly competing for low-skilled jobs with backpackers, Pacific Island agricultural labourers and “trafficked asylum seekers”, amid rampant exploitation and wage theft.

All this ran counter to the policy imperative of recruiting “high-performing students” to feed skilled migration and fuel Australia’s economic and population growth…

He said students had underpinned a skilled migration push that had “made Australia the youngest, most diverse and – until Covid – the fastest growing population in the developed world”. Yet international students who stayed on had been decried as “back-door” migrants, even during the early 2000s when the link between student visa policy and migration had been “very explicit”…

He said Canberra’s aspiration to rebuild net overseas migration to about 235,000 a year, as articulated in the 2021 Intergenerational Report, would be “impossible to deliver without a very strong contribution from overseas students”…

Dr Rizvi said international education was being undermined by the poaching of students and worker exploitation that had “overwhelmed” the Fair Work Ombudsman – a problem likely to escalate, with Australia expanding the Pacific Labour Scheme for low-skilled islanders and flagging an agricultural worker visa akin to widely criticised guest worker schemes of the US and Europe.

“We now have students with unlimited work rights in tourism, hospitality, retail and agriculture,” Dr Rizvi said. “That is a fundamental change to Australian society. It’s a fundamental change I thought Australia would never make.”

Rizvi is correct that Australian is being turned into “low-skilled guest worker society”.

The bigger question is why we should aspire “to rebuild net overseas migration to about 235,000 a year”, in the process adding a projected 13.1 million (+50%) people to Australia’s population in only 40 years – equivalent to adding a Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Australia’s existing population?

Surely, a better approach is to target a smaller number of higher quality migrants? This can be achieved in two ways.

First, require all skilled work visas (both temporary and permanent) to be paid at least at the 75th percentile of earnings (preferably higher). This would equate to a minimum salary of $90,500 currently, which would rise over time with earnings:

How much Australians earn

The 75th percentile would set a migrant pay floor of $90,500, which would rise in line with earnings.

Setting a pay floor at this level would ensure that work visas are used sparingly by Australian businesses to employ only highly skilled migrants with specialised skills, not abused by businesses as a tool for undercutting local workers, reducing wage costs, and eliminating the need for training. Further information is provided here.

Second, target a smaller intake of higher quality students via:

  1. Raising entry standards (particularly English-language proficiency);
  2. Raising financial requirements needed to enter Australia; and
  3. Removing the explicit link between studying, work rights and permanent residency.

These reforms would lift student quality, would raise genuine export revenues per student, would remove competition in the jobs market, and would lower enrolment numbers to sensible and sustainable levels that are more in line with international norms.

They would also help to improve teaching standards and the experience for domestic students, which should be our universities’ number one priority.

In short, Australia’s immigration program should focus on quality over quantity. Doing so would maximise wellbeing for current and future Australians, which must be our government’s primary focus.

Unconventional Economist
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