In electorates such as that of Opposition spokesperson Sharman Stone, Nationals MPs Kay Hulls and John Forrest, asylum seekers are critical to economic growth. Just as the Californian agricultural sector would collapse if Latinos were not able to penetrate the porous border between the US and Mexico, many fruit- and vegetable-growing businesses in the Riverina of southern New South Wales, along the Murray in Victoria and in the Goulburn Valley around Shepparton, would also struggle to survive if it were not for the availability of an Afghan, Iraqi and now Sri Lankan labour market pool.

As western European economies have found out over the past decade, asylum seekers risking their lives on leaky boats and enduring intolerably harsh conditions in makeshift camps, are a vital ingredient in the supply of labour. The point is, as capital and goods move around the world freely in this era of globalisation, so must labour.

The most celebrated illustration of the necessity of Australia’s need for a steady flow of asylum seekers in recent years has been the Young abattoir in New South Wales. The abattoir’s owners were, in 2001, facing economic ruin because they could not get labour. They recruited 90 Afghan refugees and the abattoir is still in business. A Sydney University study, published in 2003, found that “apart from the $2.5 million added to the local economy through the employment of the asylum seekers, there’s been nearly a $2 million fiscal benefit to the national economy,” because the abattoir was able to continue processing meat.

This is not an isolated example. Rural Australia has been facing a skills shortage for many years now, and even though in economic downturns that shortage is reduced considerably, the long-term trend is pronounced. A combination of young people leaving and an ageing population ensures that the Australian agricultural sector is perennially short of labour. A recent National Farmers Federation submission says that the shortfall today is about 100,000 additional employees as the rural sector emerges from drought conditions.

But labour skills shortages are not confined to the agricultural sector. Treasury secretary Ken Henry on Wednesday said that his “view is once we get through this period of macroeconomic weakness we will get back, within not too many years, a position of close to full employment and it is quite probable that in that sort of … market there will be concerns about skills shortages,” he said.

In short, Australia has a labour market demand gap of which thousands of asylum seekers should inevitably be part of the solution. Just as businesses source capital from wherever they can in a global financial market, and goods flow relatively freely into and out of this country, so business should be able to source labour more easily.

It needs to be remembered that asylum seekers are, generally speaking, a perfect fit for the labour market. As Forrest said a few years back of the asylum seekers working in businesses in his rural electorate, they are people who are educated and motivated. Forrest’s observation makes sense. You do not risk life and limb, literally, to get to Australia without having a strong sense of wanting to create a better life for yourself and your family.

Australian governments of both persuasions have, over the past two decades, been at the forefront of advocating reducing trade barriers, and rightly so. But a natural corollary of opening your borders to product and finance, is also opening it up to the labour that creates those products. To preach border protection while at the same time arguing for lower trade barriers is intellectually inconsistent and just plain hypocritical.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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