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‘Underclass of permanently temporary migrants’: Concerns about Australia’s new regional visas

The QLD state nominating body has closed the skilled program owing to a “significant backlog” of applications Source: SBS

Potential migrants looking to settle in country Australia on new regional visas are calling for lowering the income threshold they have to meet for three years before they can apply for permanent residency. There are concerns that some of them may never be able to earn enough to be able to get permanent residency.

A condition imposed on the holders of a new regional visa will make it tough for regional employers to fill skills shortages and “effectively make it impossible” for visa holders to gain permanent residency in Australia, the Migration Institute of Australia has warned.  

Skilled Employer-Sponsored Regional visa, one of the two new visas made available from November 2019, allows visa holders to live and work in Australia’s regions for three years. But in order to be eligible to apply for permanent residency, they will be required to earn at least $53,900 for each of the three years of their stay in the regions.

John Hourigan, national president of the Migration Institute of Australia warns many migrants will find it difficult to meet the income threshold and it may expose them to exploitation.

Many of the regionally based jobs these migrants will fill will be in the retail, tourism, hospitality and agricultural sectors, which are also predominantly part-time, casual and seasonal. To reach this $53,900 salary level, visa holders may be forced to work excessive hours or more than one job.

“Many of these visa holders may never be able to meet this threshold requirement to progress to permanent residency, creating an underclass of migrant workers in regional areas,” Mr Hourigan said.

Over 5,500 people have signed an online petition calling for a reduction in the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold (TSMIT) to $30,000-$45,000. The petition argues that the proposed income threshold is much higher than a temporary resident in regional Australia can earn from ordinary employment.

Australia Government has relaxed Visa rules have been relaxed to make it easier for farmers to hire skilled foreign workers

The Department of Home Affairs says employers are required to pay the annual market salary rate, which is an indicator that a visa applicant and their family have reasonable means of supporting themselves while in Australia.

"The Annual Market Salary Rate requirement ensures that overseas workers are not used to undercut the wages of equivalent Australian workers," a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said.

The Department says the new regional visa has provisions for employers to negotiate salary threshold for sponsored workers. 

There is a Labour Agreement stream for the new Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional visa, commencing in November 2019.  Labour agreements are developed between the Department and employers.  Labour Agreements allow businesses to negotiate concessions to [salary threshold] and other standard requirements, where a strong need has been demonstrated. 

The Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold is formulated as a national average based on living cost. The MIA, in its submission to Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Migration, argued that TSMIT did not reflect the state of the labour market in regional areas where wages and living costs are lower compared to big cities.

“The imposition of this artificial wage floor can have a considerable impact on regional employers’ ability to access labour,” it said while recommending concessions in the income threshold for the Temporary Skill Shortage program. The MIA also said award rates in many occupations were below the TSMIT level.

The Federal Government has touted the new regional visas, that have 23,000 visa places reserved under Australia’s annual migration cap of 160,000, as a step to addressing skill shortages in regional Australia.

However, Mr Hourigan said imposing the income threshold on visa holders may prove counter-productive.

“While the Government is telling regional Australia it is listening to concerns about skills shortages, they are going to make it as hard as possible to fill them. The requirement to earn this level of income for three years is not reasonable given the already suppressed nature of rural economies struggling with drought and diminishing investment.

“They are also sending a clear message to skilled migrants that Australia does not want them.’’

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