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We all benefit from having migrant workers

Fatima Measham |  15 February 2017


Over the past few years, migrant workers have become the default political solution for policy problems.

Migrant workersNot enough jobs? That's because foreigners are stealing them. Wages aren't going up? That's because foreigners drag them down. Graduates aren't finding positions? That's because skilled worker visas are being given out too easily.

Maybe there is something to these answers. They certainly are potent in pockets of Australian society that would rather blame outsiders than demand that their government create new jobs, enforce or lift the minimum wage, improve work conditions and training, and mediate skills transfers from industries that are contracting, such as mining and coal-based power.

The truth is that 457 visa holders take up less than 1.2 per cent of the Australian labour force. Their numbers are falling, in part due to a weakening economy. It makes little sense to scaffold an entire political argument around them, unless there are dividends to be made at the ballot box.

What does not get said loudly enough is that we all benefit from having migrant workers. Peter Mares, veteran journalist and author of Not Quite Australian, points out that 457 visa holders make business viable and create jobs (such as in rural abbatoirs), fill health care positions in regional areas, spend money on Australian businesses, and improve the overall budget position due to the significant income tax they pay. Paying taxes, by the way, does not give them access to Centrelink and Medicare.

Despite protectionism gaining traction over the past couple years, it is unreasonable and impractical to allow movement of capital, goods and services, yet control labour mobility. Migrants are deep in the economic engine of the developed world. Extracting them comes at a cost and introduces uncertainty, especially in primary industries. This would have flow-on effects on local and national economies.

After the Brexit referendum, only 67 per cent of labour demand in the UK horticultural sector was met, a 30 per cent drop on the second quarter. A similar shortage may hit California farmers hard as the Trump administration continues to crack down on immigration.

The response from US tech companies and universities to the executive order against visa-holders from seven Muslim-majority countries also reminds us that labour markets have long been global.


"The assumption that jobs occupied by a migrant worker could be taken by an Australian is seldom questioned. Yet completion rates for trade apprenticeships is 56.3 per cent. Only 40.6 per cent in food trades complete their training."


Businesses and institutions have drawn workers from overseas not just as shortage fillers but as a matter of gaining competitive advantage. Where they can afford to sponsor foreign workers — and it looks like it will become more expensive to do so in Australia — it is their prerogative to recruit the best.

This should not be controversial. Perhaps it is only controversial in countries propped up by nostalgic exceptionalism, rather than anything more concrete like securely funded STEM and vocational education systems. The assumption that any and all jobs occupied by a migrant worker could be taken by an Australian is very seldom questioned. Yet completion rates for trade apprenticeships is 56.3 per cent. Only 40.6 per cent in food trades complete their training.

To tinker with migrant labour is to deflect from the deep inertia around local jobs and training. Politicians may well intone 'Australians first'. But given that over the past couple decades they have defunded TAFEs and universities, while enabling industries to profit from a transactional foreign worker model, some skepticism is in order at the very least. At the most, we could ask for a less brittle, less anachronistic vision in a globalised economy than nationalism.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.



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Submitted comments

Thanks Fatima for this pertinent essay that rebuts the unsubstantiated argument that migrants take “Australian” jobs. I think there are deeper issues here about low completion rates among other things that need to be looked at calmly without emotive responses about losing jobs. But there is also a social side to migrant workers coming into a community and widening our cultural base. It is how modern Australia was built. Some people might call it social engineering but I suggest the positives outweigh any negatives.

Brett 16 February 2017

I would like to ask a question about the above photo. What are they all smiling at?

AO 16 February 2017

I agree with everything you say, Fatima, but there are a few exceptions that do feed the anti-immigration narrative. These need to be acknowledged as the exception or we do our own case no good. In my country town the meatworks was one of the largest non-government employers. After a protracted union dispute over conditions, the company closed it down and sold it to a bigger company. I know some of the details of what happened because I was involved with the agency helping the 1200 sacked workers find jobs and retrain. When it reopened, none of the workers who belonged to the union were re-employed and the shortfall was made up of 457 visa holders. The local workers left were too scared to object to anything. At a later date, it was discovered the company had indeed been under-paying the migrant workers. It makes the aims of our local migrant support group harder and I'd welcome any ideas how we can provide a counter narrative.

Julie Davies 17 February 2017

Dear Fatima, my concern is that we have a large group of migrant workers who are being exploited. Some of these are people who are not meant to be working, some are backpackers, some are those coming in under special visas for people from the Pacific, etc. Many of them are being paid cash in hand with no documentation (as little as $13- an hour on vegetable farms) and being exploited also by being charged exorbitant accommodation and transport costs. But where are the regulators? If we are bringing in migrant workers we need to also employ people to check that unscrupulous employers and contractors are not taking advantage of their vulnerability.

Sandra H 17 February 2017

It is amazing how the human being living in advanced and economically successful societies abuses all things born of the care and concern for the less fortunate. It would be interesting to see the effects of removing unemployment benefits from all except the physically and mentally disabled. We have unfortunately allowed a dependency or "right to be looked after by government" mentality to develop for far too long in Australia in those quite capable of working. Can't imagine a response in this country in the event of another Great Depression - don't think we would find many swagmen doing whatever work they could to feed their families!

john frawley 17 February 2017

Hi Fatima, I have literally just tweeted it would be great to hear a pro 457 visa story now and again. Thank you for delivering.

Christopher pitt 17 February 2017

Given that migrant workers exist to serve the host economy by making up for the workers which the host cannot provide, and that labourers are worthy of their hire, they should be covered by Medicare. One would think that as most accidents and sicknesses among migrant workers are perils which originate in the host community, the host should pay for their consequences. This is no different from allowing a migrant worker to sue a citizen under the normal legal processes for a wrong done to the worker. For those rare migrant workers who have an exotic condition originating elsewhere than Australia, access to Medicare would accord with the Bible's injunction to be nice to the foreigners 'living among you' -- for cases where the government health checks couldn't have been expected to discover the risk.

Roy Chen Yee 17 February 2017

Roy. I also recall that the Bible records the shunning and isolation of people with untreatable leprosy. Doubt that there are too many cases where the health risks were not detectable by health checks.

john frawley 18 February 2017

Thank you for such a clear presentation of the facts, Fatima. There are also countless cultural benefits that foreign workers bring with them and share with our communities. With their help we continue to mature as a nation.

Jim Slingsby 18 February 2017

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