ABUL RIZVI. New regional visas – a recipe for exploitation and destitution.

Apr 15, 2019

The Government’s new regional migration arrangements make it easier for potential migrants with lower skill levels and limited English to access temporary residence via low paid jobs in regional Australia. At the same time, the government is making it significantly more difficult for these people to secure permanent residence. This is a recipe for more exploitation and the potential to add to a growing underclass of destitute people who have no access to any form of social safety net. 

From November 2019, there will be essentially four skilled migration (non-business skills) pathways targeting regional Australia:

  • The existing state/territory nominated visa for direct permanent residence;  24,968 places have been allocated for this visa in 2019-20 and will mainly cater for high skill migrants who are a priority for the nominating state/territory. Most state/territory governments use this visa to target occupations such as health professionals, high end ICT occupations; engineers and teachers. The visa is not confined to regional Australia but can be used by any state/territory government for any part of their jurisdiction. Take up of this visa will be subject to the needs of each state/territory government.
  • A new provisional Skilled Employer Sponsored visa (sub-class 494) that will replace the long-standing direct permanent residence Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS). The new visa has 9,000 places allocated in 2019-20. It will provide for a wider range of occupations than the existing RSMS but becomes an employer-sponsored provisional visa. The policy rationale and evidence supporting the need to make the existing permanent residence RSMS visa into a provisional visa has not been made public. There have been allegations of systemic abuse of RSMS but details have not been made public.
  • A new Skilled Work Regional Visa (sub-class 494) which is also a provisional visa that will replace the existing state/territory nominated provisional visa. There will be 14,000 places for this visa in 2019-20 depending on how many applicants are nominated by state/territory governments. The key difference will be that to obtain permanent residence, the provisional visa holders must live and work in the relevant region for three years rather than one year of work and two years of living in the relevant region. To secure permanent residence, the applicant must also earn a minimum level of taxable income for three years (whilst they have very limited access to government services and benefits). Once again the policy rationale and evidence supporting the need to make access to permanent residence more difficult has not been made public.
  • Negotiation of a series of Designated Area Migration Agreements (DAMAs) that provide a temporary residence visa for largely lower skill workers with low levels of English and who are prepared to work in relatively low paid jobs in regional Australia. The pathway to permanent residence for these visa holders is presently highly constrained. Many of the visa holders under a DAMA are unlikely to be able to obtain permanent residence at any stage. Places available under these arrangements are negotiated on a region by region basis by the Department of Home Affairs.

The first of these visas will be favoured by most potential migrants through to the one at the bottom being least favoured. However, the risk of exploitation is greatest as we move down this list with the highest risk being associated with the DAMAs. While the government has sought to put obligations on the relevant regional bodies to monitor for exploitation, it is yet to be seen how effective these will be.

The temporary residents in the last three of the above visas will be totally beholden to their employers.  (It is unclear how flexible Home Affairs will be to workers that seek to change their employer or those that have worked with different employers.)

Unlike temporary residents with high skill levels and good English, they will be poorly placed to argue for their rights to be properly paid. Even if they have sufficient English to do so, they will be totally beholden to their employers for survival and any chance of securing permanent residence. To an unscrupulous employer, they will be effectively indentured labour – a small step away from being slaves.

If they leave their employer, their chances of securing another job, especially if there is an economic downturn, will be very limited and in some circumstances may be constrained by Home Affairs rules. They workers will have no access to any social safety net and are unlikely to have sufficient finances to return home. Many may become destitute.

If they do eventually become permanent residents, they then face a further four year wait before they can access any social security. In an economic downturn, they will be among the first to lose their jobs and will face a tough labour market while earning no income. Once again, destitution becomes a very real risk, especially for low skill and low English level workers who may have to wait a minimum of seven years working in Australia before they have the protection of a social safety net.

Is this really well thought through policy?

There is certainly a case for assisting regional employers to access skilled labour. But where is the evidence that the existing suite of regional visas, which the government had largely forgotten about for the last five years, needed to be changed in a way that dramatically increases the risk of exploitation and destitution?

Do we really want to become a country like the USA with large numbers of very poorly paid and exploited people who have little chance of ever becoming permanent residents?

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 for ten years the Chair of the Commonwealth/State Working Party on Regional Migration.

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