ABUL RIZVI. A Cruel Government Setting Regional Migrants Up for Exploitation and Failure

Dec 4, 2019

On 16 November 2019, the Government’s much touted new regional migration visas took effect. One of these is a five year provisional visa that requires the migrant to be nominated by a state/territory government. To secure permanent residence, the provisional migrant must live and work in the relevant region and earn at least $53,900 per annum for a minimum of three financial years. If state/territory governments actively participate in this visa, they will be collaborating with the Commonwealth to set up many of these migrants for exploitation and failure.

For people living in Melbourne or Sydney, $53,900 per annum that may seem not a particularly high salary. But getting a job that pays that much in many of our regional areas is extraordinarily difficult.

Jobs that pay $53,900 per annum to recent graduates – and most of the migrants applying for this visa will be relatively recent graduates – are not common in South Australia or Tasmania or indeed in many parts of regional Australia. Average weekly earnings (ABS Cat: 6302) for all persons working in the private sector in South Australia in May 2019 was $1005.10 (ie $52,265 per annum). In Tasmania this was $948.50 (ie $49,322).

At the 2016 census, median employee income for major regional centres was substantially below $53,900 per annum. For example, Albury – $45,382; Armidale – $39,733; Bega – $38,672; Cessnock – $45,506; Corangamite – $38,374; Douglas – $36,089; Dubbo – $45,510; Geelong – $45,256; Griffith – $41,042; Mildura – $39,421; Murray River – $40,311; Northam – $50,328; Rockhampton – $50,022; Wanneroo – $50,024).

While in time most skilled migrants achieve much higher salaries, to expect them to do so soon after graduation risks them being exploited and/or being put into immigration limbo.

So let’s consider some scenarios and how the Department of Home Affairs may handle these.

Scenario 1: Former overseas student now on a temporary entry visa but with less than three years skilled work experience has a job in a regional town with a salary just below $53,900 per annum. Migrant is nominated by a state/territory government. The migrant remains in that job for five years but their salary only exceeds the $53,900 level for the last two financial years? Must the migrant then leave Australia or can the migrant then nominate for the new regional employer sponsored provisional visa to extend provisional stay in Australia?

Scenario 2: Temporary entrant couple, both with less than three years skilled work experience, are nominated by a state/territory government. Both work for five years in regional Australia but neither is able to secure a pay increase to above $53,900 per annum for three financial years. Must the couple then leave Australia?

Scenario 3: Temporary entrant who has been nominated by a state/territory government works in regional Australia on a series of short-term contracts with breaks of 1-2 months. Annualised salary in each contract is greater than $53,900 but in no three financial year period does the migrant earn $53,900 per annum. Must the migrant leave Australia?

Scenario 4: Temporary entrant nominated by a state/territory government gets a job in regional Australia that pays more than $53,900 but a substantial part of that salary is ‘in-kind’. The migrant is egregiously exploited by their employer. The temporary entrant is desperate to secure permanent residence and does not report the exploitation to Fair Work. DHA discovers the migrant has been exploited and has not genuinely earned $53,900 per annum for three years. Must the migrant leave Australia at the end of their provisional visa?

Scenario 5: Temporary entrant nominated by a state/territory government works in a number of low skill jobs in regional Australia which, added together, realise a salary of greater than $53,900 per annum over three financial years. Is that going to be acceptable to the Commonwealth?

Scenario 6: An overseas applicant is nominated by a state/territory government. After 12 months unsuccessfully looking for a job in regional Australia and living off their savings, moves to Sydney to take up a skilled job at a six figure salary. Must the migrant leave Australia at the end of their five year provisional visa because they have breached the conditions of their visa? Are they allowed to apply to return or is there a penalty?

A delegate of Minister Coleman has argued that the $53,900 salary threshold has been “carefully set to protect migrants from worker exploitation, and to ensure that migration cannot be used to undercut the wages of Australians”.

This statement confuses the purpose of minimum salary for temporary employer sponsored migration which is indeed designed to minimise the risk of exploitation and prevent migration being used to displace Australian workers. It was introduced when the key-activity/non-key activity concept and labour market testing was originally abolished.

The minimum salary mechanism applying to employer sponsored migration is an obligation on the employer and it is the employer who is subject to penalty if they fail to pay the minimum salary not the employee.

Use of a high minimum salary for a lengthy period under the new state/territory nominated provisional visa actually increases the risk of exploitation. This is because the minimum salary requirement applies to the employee not the employer. The penalty for not receiving the minimum salary applies entirely to the employee. The minimum salary requirement for state/territory provisional visas puts the employer in an enormously powerful position to make onerous demands on the migrant.

How the Government came to the conclusion this protects the employee is a mystery.

At a time when migrant worker exploitation has become endemic, the Government should go back to the drawing board on these new provisional visas. If they don’t, state/territory governments must make it clear they will not use this visa because of the unacceptable risks.

If state/territory governments make only limited use of the new sub-class 491 visa, it is possible the Commonwealth will make greater use of family sponsorships. However, this risks a reduced level of occupational targeting and even greater risk the provisional migrant will be unable to secure employment over three financial years that pays $53,900 per annum.

Time for Coleman to go back to the drawing board on these regional visas.

Abul Rizvi was a senior official in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007 when he left as Deputy Secretary. He was awarded the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for services to development and implementation of immigration policy, including in particular the reshaping of Australia’s intake to focus on skilled migration. He is currently doing a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies.

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