There’s an interesting split between the submission Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews is reportedly taking to Cabinet next month – increasing the permanent migration program from the present 140,000 a year to “at least 180,000” – and what Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Joe Hockey has been telling people – the present level of immigration is capped, no more.

The employer lobby is barracking for and pushing the Andrews submission along as well as campaigning for an unlimited supply of cheap labour by having sub-section 457 visas minimum wages conditions removed, leaving the guest workers to the vagaries of WorkChoices.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Trevor Hendy in the AFR on Friday said it was not appropriate for the Federal Government to mandate a one-size-fits-all minimum salary level for “temporary migrants”.

The 457 scheme sets different minimum wages for different jobs, but there’s a bottom line of $41,850 in the city and $37,665 in the bush – both already well below average Australian wages.

Hendy’s vision of what Australia’s labour market should be would certainly ease Pete Costello’s professed fears of wages inflation arising from our low unemployment rate. But it would also retard our productivity growth by retaining our least productive and worst paid jobs. That’s fine by employers. It also extends the length of our long, golden summer of economic growth by keeping interest rate rises at bay.

The surge of guest workers and skilled migration has already kept a lid on wages. As we’ve previously reported, more than half the growth of 200,000 full time jobs last year went to guest workers and targeted skills migrants.

With no apparent cap on 457 visas, plus the Kevin Andrews’s migration submission, it will continue to do so. But one wonders if John Howard is the sort of politician who would want record immigration numbers in an election year.

Peter Fray

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