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All Work, No Stay? Australia's shift towards temporary migration

Airline passengers make their way through Melbourne Airport in Melbourne. Source: AAP Image/Julian Smith

Australia, a nation shaped by permanent migration, appears to be shifting to a new reality which some say is a permanent shift to temporary migration.

Australia, a nation shaped by permanent migration, appears to be shifting to a new reality which some say is a permanent shift to temporary migration.

Peter Mares is the author of All Work, No Stay?, an analysis commissioned by SBS and published today.

It looks at the growing numbers of temporary visas and the consequences of that,  and asks whether Australia's model of permanent settlement is giving way to a new reality - Australia as a guest worker society.

Author Peter Mares is a contributing editor with Inside Story Magazine and has spent many years analysing Australia's immigration trends.

He has just completed research commissioned by SBS on the consequences of what he sees as a shift towards temporary migration.

While temporary migration has benefits, such as Australia's international education sector worth 27 billion dollars a year, he says there are costs associated with it too, in terms of the exploitation of migrant workers.

One example he notes is the underpayment of contract cleaners at the Melbourne Cricket Ground between 2009 and 2014.

It was a story first uncovered by SBS News that prompted an investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman.

"Below labour wage code. I was really furious because it was hard-earned money picking up rubbish and vomits of drunken audience that's watching footy."

Peter Mares says these sorts of scandals raise a significant question.

Is Australia shifting away from permanent settlement towards temporary visa arrangements that marginalise migrants and leave them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse?

"Settlers came, they quickly achieved permanent residency and citizenship and became fully-fledged members of the Australian political community with the same rights as anyone else. We're now creating a scenario where we have a large number of people who don't have the same rights as everyone else, who don't get to vote, who aren't represented by politicians and who are also more vulnerable in the workplace because of their visa status and that to me is troubling for a country that prides itself on a history of social cohesion and harmony."

He points out that temporary migration now dwarfs permanent migration, with the number of visas issued for international students, working holiday-makers and skilled workers now roughly triple the number of permanent visas.

The at-times politically controversial 457 visas have been replaced by Temporary Skills Shortage ((TSS)) visas, which are divided into two streams - short and medium term.

Only the medium term TSS visa offers a pathway to permanent residency.

Peter Mares believes this change increases the potential for employers to exploit temporary workers.

"If you create conditions where people are very keen to stay in Australia but their prospects for doing so are very narrow, then you might create a whole lot of circumstances where they will attempt to please their boss, for example. They certainly won't rock the boat at work in the hope of finding a pathway to permanent residency."

The Acting National President of the Migration Institute of Australia, Leanne Edwards, has similar misgivings about the new TSS visas.

"A person who knows they have to remain a certain amount of time with an employer to get their permanent residency will now have to remain a third longer. They have to remain three years, not two years and our members certainly do report cases of  clients reporting very, very substandard working conditions, exploitation, being underpaid, working too many hours etc and simply being too frightened to report any such incidents because they know that their permanent residency may be on the line."

Abul Rizvi was a senior official at the Department of Immigration from 1995 until 2007, when he resigned as Deputy Secretary.

Mr Rizvi says while the exploitation of migrant workers is a serious issue, worker exploitation is more widespread, right across the economy.

"It is not just confined to temporary entrants, I agree it is more prevalent amongst temporary entrants but it is a bigger problem and in my view the problem should be addressed directly by government possibly with the involvement, a stronger involvement, of the unions to deal with the problems of exploitation. I don't think stopping temporary entry or reducing temporary entry is the right solution to the exploitation problem."

Peter Mares says the increase in temporary visas could be an attempt to appease those who believe Australia's immigration intake should be cut.

"There is a strong and vocal anti-immigrant sentiment in Australia. We see it in the One Nation party, we see it expressed by Tony Abbott, or a view that migration is too high, so one way of responding politically to that - and I don't know what's going on in the minister's mind, of course - but one way of responding to that is to cut the permament migration intake and say look, we're not bringing in so many people but at the same time, use temporary migration to solve the labour market problems that are emerging, like a lack of workers in aged care."

SBS News has made repeated attempts to obtain a response from the Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, Alan Tudge, but he did not make himself available.

 The article by Peter Mares can be found here