Workforce | Skills

Associate Professor Joanna Howe: Labour migration in a post-Brexit (now Trump) world

Identifying skills shortages in Australia for the purposes of awarding 457 visas needs to be determined by an independent authority – not by employers – University of Adelaide’s Senior Lecturer of Law and CEDA’s Migration: the economic debate report author Associate Professor Joanna Howe has told a CEDA audience in Adelaide.


Associate Professor Howe spoke about her personal connection to immigration – both in terms of her family’s history, and her family’s future.

“As the daughter of an immigrant I know firsthand the transformative powers of immigration,” Associate Professor Howe told the audience.

“My father left India in his late teens for England, with only the money is his battered suitcase which he brought with him. In England he worked three jobs while studying, and ultimately he worked his way up to senior management in an IT company. He worked very hard, as immigrants often do.”

Looking towards the future, she said that she also understood the line often used in anti-immigration arguments. Effectively, ‘foreign workers should not be able to take the jobs that locals do’. 

“And maybe we agree with that sentiment,” she continued. “That Aussie workers should get the first go at jobs in the local economy. I’d like to think that when my three, soon to be four, children grow up, there will be opportunities for them to enter the labour market, and that they’re not competing for those jobs with people from overseas.”

“Internationally, institutions like the World Bank and the OECD, they push for labour migration as a triple win. They say it’s transformative for the individual worker, it’s helpful to employers in meeting their labour needs, and it increases the general economic prosperity of host nations.

“Yet increasingly in Australia and abroad, we see pubic division on labour migration. The consensus is breaking down, so people are no longer buying into the pro-labour migration rhetoric of international economic institutions.

“Partly this is fuelled by the politics of fear, but also because of genuine problems in the way host countries manage their labour migration policy. We are now beginning to rethink our fundamental support for labour migration, and we see that both in the Brexit debate and in the Trump phenomenon in the US.

“What concerns me and concerns many of us, though, is the rhetoric. It implies that migrant workers are stealing the jobs, that they are to blame. That they are underhanded, and knowingly trying to make things worse for the rest of us.

“The truth, as (politicians) really should know, is somewhat more nuanced.”

Associate Professor Howe argued that if Australia devised labour migration policy in a more “honest, coherent and transparent way, we are less likely to succumb to this politics of fear”.

She argued that it is poor government regulation that sets up systems which allow labour migration to be managed in such a way that considers the needs of big business and employers – but not the migrant workers themselves, or whether local jobs are safeguarded.

“It’s not the whole story to say that anyone who is against immigration is bigoted, fearful or small-minded,” she said. “The truth is, Australia does have a major problem with its labour immigration system.”

Associate Professor Howe criticised the current labour migration program for not protecting local jobs, wages or conditions – and also opening the door to the exploitation of temporary migrant workers.

In particular, she argued that the way skills shortages are identified in regards to 457 visas needs to be significantly adjusted.

“For an employer to bring in a temporary worker on a 457 visa, they have to do a number of things. They have to make sure that the occupation is on something called the consolidated occupation list,” she explained.

“Now this list has over 600 occupations on it, many of which are actually not in shortage. In fact… they’re in things like teaching, nursing, law, and accounting. Occupations where in most metropolitan cities Australian university graduates are struggling to get jobs. We say that the 457 visa can only be used if there’s a genuine vacancy, but the mechanism to test this is incredibly easy to evade if you’re an unscrupulous employer.

“In 2013, after her Rooty Hill speech, (Prime Minister Julia) Gillard’s government introduced employer conducted labour market testing. This requires that any employer wishing to engage a 457 visa holder, has to advertise the job first to local workers. Theoretically this seems like a good mechanism for identifying a shortage, but it’s incredibly ineffective as a regulatory measure.

“The Department of Immigration’s own advice to employers is that a Facebook advertisement, placed in the last 12 months, will suffice for labour market testing. So all an employer has to do to test the market is put an ad – it can be unpaid – on social media and this qualifies. And the Department of Immigration simply does not have the resources to properly asses an employer’s assertion that a skills shortage is a genuine one.

“457 visa holders are extremely reliant on employer sponsorship, and if there isn’t a genuine skills shortage then the worker is extremely vulnerable. So I think we need to introduce independent labour market testing.

“It’s something that’s done quite effectively in other countries, it means that we outsource the decisions of whether there is a skills shortage not to the employer who has a vested profit maximisation interest, but we look at the national interest, and we get an independent commission to do that kind of testing.

“This is the sort of system that’s done in other countries, and it works quite well.”

Download Migration: the economic debate and read Associate Professor Joanna Howe's chapter, which suggests three ways to address regulatory confusion around labour migration.