Jul 29, 2013

Stop the planes? The frustrations of educated, working migrants

The government's hard-line anti-immigration rhetoric focuses on asylum seekers, particularly those arriving by boat, but what about the hundreds of thousands of migrants who come to Australia to work?

Amber Jamieson — Freelance journalist in New York

Amber Jamieson

Freelance journalist in New York

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott last week declared "a national emergency on our borders". The Prime Minister uses similar rhetoric and has announced a new "hard-line" policy. They are, of course, talking about asylum seekers arriving by boat. But asylum seekers make up just 7% of the nearly 200,000 people who come to Australia each year under its combined migration and humanitarian program. What about the other 93% who decide to call Australia home -- at least for a little while? It might be less dangerous than getting on a boat, but don't assume it's an easy process to secure working rights in Australia, even for educated, middle-class, English-speaking migrants. A total of 198,757 visas were awarded through Australia's combined migration and humanitarian program in 2011-2012. Of that figure, about 93% came as migrants, with 68% of them skilled migrants (about 32% are family members of residents, citizens or visa holders). Wannabe Aussie workers have a few options, including the working holiday visa, the infamous employer-sponsored 457 visa for skilled workers (which is now more difficult to secure following new legislation), skilled independent and state-nominated visas (for those whose job titles are on the skilled occupation list) and skilled visas for workers in regional areas. Plus a stack of other confusing short- and long-term visas for media professionals, sportspeople and temporary workers. "I'm a classic example of somebody of someone who doesn't need to be here -- I've got a happy life in the UK," said Joanne (not her real name; Crikey agreed to use pseudonyms is this story so visa outcomes aren't impacted), a specialist teacher who first arrived in Australia five years ago. "But I prefer the lifestyle here, and ideally long term I’d like to stay." In that time she's been on a working holiday visa and a 457 visa, attempted to get a de facto visa (the relationship has since ended) and is now waiting for her second 457 visa to be approved, after finally securing a job with a company willing to sponsor her. Workers with 457 visas have to continue to work in the same position at the company for two years before they can apply for permanent residency -- and they have to remain at the job while their PR application is processed. "If you don't enjoy your job, you’re stuffed," noted Joanne, who left the first company that was sponsoring her on a 457 visa. "I felt exploited, to be perfectly frank. They had me by the balls, because it was either work this job or leave the country."
"I'm working, I pay tax, I'm not eligible for Medicare. I guess you could argue I'm taking a job away from an Australian, but ..."
New tightened regulations are a significant hurdle for those who want 457 visas. A company must now prove a "genuine skill need" for the position (including advertising the job for several months), cover the cost of sponsoring the employee, prove that it invests money in training Australian and permanent resident employees, plus a host of other changes. It's an intimidating set of challenges, particularly for small businesses, and migration lawyers are expensive. There are also pathways to permanent residency available to people who originally came to study; in 2011-2012 a whopping 30,978 of permanent residence visas were given to former student visa holders. However, with changes to the skilled occupation list, it is becoming more difficult to get a permanent visa off the back of a student visa. Louise came to Australia as a student from North America  two years ago to complete a master's degree. "As a student you’re living here, you obviously get attached, you make a home for yourself," she told Crikey. Following the degree, a working holiday visa was the only option she had available to stay longer, because other working visas are only available to students who had studied for at least two years. But the working holiday visa means she cannot stay in the same job -- or even at the same company -- for more than six months. She will also have to leave her home (and her Australian boyfriend) to move to the country for three months of farm work so she can extend her visa for another year -- unless she's soon able to secure a full-time job that is willing to sponsor her. Louise currently works as a temp and volunteers several days a week at aid organisations in the hope of getting a permanent job; however, organisations have told her that since there are lots of qualified workers in that field, it would be difficult for them to both prove to the Immigration Department that they were unable to find an Australian to do the job and justify the cost and effort involved in sponsoring her, even if she is a perfect candidate. "The working holiday visa as it stands now is for 19-year-olds from the UK," said Louise, who acknowledges the Australian government clearly doesn't want people like her to use them. Compare this with Canada and the UK, where Australians can get a two-year working holiday with very few restrictions on where they can work or for how long, offering more options to establish professional connections. Australians can even renew their two-year Canadian working holiday visas more than once. Only Australia has mandatory farm work. Yet despite this, the number of working holiday visas grew 15.6% -- to 222,992 visas -- in 2011-2012. With a background in humanities, aid and policy, Louise's talents aren't in demand. She spent nearly $30,000 in school fees here; however, she is not eligible for any social services. "I'm working, I pay tax, I'm not eligible for Medicare. I guess you could argue I'm taking a job away from an Australian, but ..." It's a paperwork and legal minefield if she wants to continue building her life here. "This is the least of Australia’s visa and immigration worries at the moment, but just from a selfish perspective it’s frustrating," she told Crikey.

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15 thoughts on “Stop the planes? The frustrations of educated, working migrants

  1. Lynn Yaeger

    Good luck with your study in the US, Ms. Jamieson. I have a friend who has just completed a Masters in Journalism at Columbia University and I’m sure you’ll do brilliantly. It has been a pleasure to read your articles and I do hope to come across your work again in the future.

  2. paddy

    A bloody good piece for your final effort Amber.
    The whole immigration landscape in Oz is such a mess, it’s hard to see it getting any saner until we get a whole new generation of politicians.
    (Not exactly holding my breath.)

    Meanwhile, good luck and all the best for your US adventure.

  3. Kevin_T

    All the best for your future, Amber.
    I have enjoyed your work with Crikey.

  4. klewso

    Do you reckon they get that old saying about “Penny wise; pound foolish”?

  5. Professor Tournesol

    Amber they may be economic migrants but thank god they are white! That makes it OK apparently…. oh by the way they aren’t Muslims are they?

  6. gatekeepercb

    We recently experienced detriment due to the tightening of UK’s border. In June our daughter was refused entry into the UK because i) she let go her apartment in Sydney prior to travelling, ii) worked as a casual and so was not permanently employed in Australia iii) did not require hotel reservations as she was visiting friends and iv) she was travelling with her money stashed on a Commonwealth (of Australia) Travel Card so not visible unless given access to the internet. The UK border force officer dealing with her couldn’t get his head around any of this, even after he talked to her friend with whom she planned to stay. When she asked to be held long enough so she could call us, her parents, in Australia- this delightful person threatened her with detention and that she would be put onto the plane the following day in handcuffs. We are talking about a young Australian who paid for her own return ticket to the UK, working as a casual. Her aim to visit All Tomorrow’s Parties in Iceland with Nick Cave curating and to see the Rolling Stones perform in Hyde Park. This mission clearly wasn’t enough of a reason for our ‘mother’ country to grant entry to a 5th generation UK descendant Australian. This is the time in which we live.

  7. Kevin Herbert

    Lynn Yaeger:

    as a matter of general interest, what does your friend who finished their Masters in journalism at Columbia, propose to do with that qualification?

  8. Henry Sherrell

    I welcome interest in this area. There is a significant lack of media coverage of these policies, except for in periods of hysteria (see the 457 visa debate) or when cases of migrant exploitation arise. The author and Crikey are to be congratulated for taking the time to write about these issues.

    However there are a few things in the Crikey piece that should be addressed.

    “Workers with 457 visas have to continue to work in the same position at the company for two years before they can apply for permanent residency”.

    This statement is wrong. Anyone is free to apply for permanent residency, however the requirements are different for those who have held a 457 visa with their employer for the past two years. This is an important distinction. The point the article is articulating, that 457 visa holders often feel beholden to their employer, is definitely worth making. But migrants do have the opportunity to apply for a permanent sponsored visa.

    Under the Employer Nomination Scheme (permanent employer-sponsored visas), there are two streams. One is the ‘Temporary Residency’ stream, which 457 visa holders can apply for. This is an easier visa to satisfy than the ‘Direct Entry’ stream. The main differences are higher English language and skill level barriers for the Direct Entry stream. Unfortunately the Department does not release statistics that break down the Employer Nomination Scheme so it’s hard to say one way or another which is more popular.

    Personally, I think the requirement to work two years with the same employer is an odious one that forces people into situations they may not want to be. This policy should be revised to make it that two years on a 457 visa with any employer should satisfy entry to the ‘temporary residency’ stream.

    “New tightened regulations are a significant hurdle for those who want 457 visas.”

    The problem with this sentence is that tightened regulations are largely unknown despite the legislation being passed in June. Labour market testing, where the employer must advertise the positions for Australian workers, has not yet been detailed (apparently it will be introduced in November). There are also a handful of other small regulatory changes however personally, even as a staunch immigration advocate, I wouldn’t consider the new regulations a “significant hurdle” until the full details are released. I don’t agree with the language behind the recent batch of reform, yet I feel they will have relatively minimal impact on the number of visas approved. Approximately 80-85% of visas are granted to larger employers who have in-house migration lawyers or pay consultants. Fees will increase, but the economy drives the 457 program, not tinkering with regulations. The rhetoric from business groups is largely self-interested (not that this excuses other parties in the debate).

    “In 2011-2012 a whopping 30,978 of permanent residence visas were given to former student visa holders. However, with changes to the skilled occupation list, it is becoming more difficult to get a permanent visa off the back of a student visa.”

    This statement isn’t necessary incorrect but I feel it’s misleading. Earlier in the article, the author says, “asylum seekers make up just 7% of the nearly 200,000 people who come to Australia each year under its combined migration and humanitarian program.” Why are 14,000 asylum seekers described as “just” while 30,978 former students are described as “whopping”? This could easily have been, ‘In 2011-12 only 14% of the Australian migration program was made up of former student visa holders”.

    Further, there were major changes to the skilled occupation list however this was in 2010 and 2011, a time when the number of students was ‘whopping’. In the past couple of years there has been very little change. Other changes, such as the introduction of a type of priority processing based on the number of points a migrant earns, have had an impact but this was not due to the skilled occupation list.

    Finally, a new type of visa has been promoted for students, the ‘post-study work visa’. This visa gives international students a defined period of time (between two and four years) to work for any employer. This is an opportunity to gain Australian work experience in a designated skilled occupations from which they have graduated. Afterwards, applying for a permanent visa, either with the employer or through the points-test, is significantly easier. Not every student in Australia will be eligible for these visas due to transitional arrangements but all future students will have access if their degrees comply with regulations (which most will if they are from an established university). None of this context is added despite being a major overhaul of the student-migration pathway.

    (And a technical note; the 200,000 number is not the number of people who come to Australia, but the number of people who are granted permanent visas. With the increase in onshore visa grants, there is a significant difference)

    “With a background in humanities, aid and policy, Louise’s talents aren’t in demand. She spent nearly $30,000 in school fees here; however, she is not eligible for any social services. “I’m working, I pay tax, I’m not eligible for Medicare. I guess you could argue I’m taking a job away from an Australian, but …””

    I have little doubt that ‘Louise’ would be able to be sponsored by her employer if they really wanted to keep her and the position met other regulations (such as the salary floor). With a master’s degree and prior experience, she should easily be able to demonstrate she has the skills available to perform the relevant job. As discussed above, the labour market testing regime has yet to be introduced and in addition, it does not apply to permanent employer sponsored visas.

    Further, while she as an individual from North America is not entitled to health care, some working holiday makers are. Citizens of UK, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, Republic of Ireland and New Zealand are entitled to Medicare through reciprocal healthcare arrangements. These nations make up a strong minority of total WHMs, demonstrating the more integrated relationship with those countries. Australia is unlikely to enter into a reciprocal arrangement with the US due to the US not having a public healthcare system (despite migrants in the US paying into Medicare and Medicaid, like migrants in Australia paying tax and medicare).

    I’m not advocating one way or the other, just trying to provide some context around the situation migrants find themselves in. I believe there should be much broader coverage of Medicare for temporary migrants.

    “Yet despite this, the number of working holiday visas grew 15.6% — to 222,992 visas — in 2011-2012.”

    By outlining the requirements of the WHM (no more than 6 months with one employer and a maximum duration of two years only if regional work is undertaken for 88 days) then saying ‘despite this’, the piece misses the central point of migration. These visas are growing because of Australia’s place in the world, not because of the legislative framework. The Australian economy is booming relative to other developed nations. This is why the number of WHMs is growing rapidly. These are all young people (under 30) looking for opportunities to work and a chance to settle elsewhere, at least temporarily. By framing the debate around the regulatory framework of WHMs, the author places all the focus on the individual concerned despite the unknown of her circumstances relative to the standard migrant on a working holiday visa.

    I don’t pretend public policy regulations around skilled, student and other temporary migration is easy. I imagine it’s one of the more complicated sets of regulation and legislation. This piece does an admirable attempt to educate on the potential situations young migrants seeking a better life can find themselves in. Yet it misses a few crucial points and some very important context.

    Finally, this shows that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has a substantial job on it’s hands to better education journalists, other policy makers and the general public about the intricacies of various migration programs. Misinformation will have poor long term outcomes and may lead to further histrionics.

  9. klewso

    What if journalists (framing how the rest of us get to see events) don’t want to be “educated” – if they’re happy with their opinions?

  10. bettina roesler

    The greatest insanity of this ‘system’ is that it’s incredibly rigid and doesn’t allow for any flexibility. There are big cracks and too many quality people fall through these. I for example have been studying a PhD on an Australian government scholarship – basically, the Australian tax payers have paid for my tuition and living cost for the past 3.5 years. One would think I’d be an investment. Yet, I cannot even apply for a temporary visa (ineligible applying for the work-post-study visa as I started at an ‘unfortunate moment’ of changes in immigration legislations) and will have to leave Australia once my education here is completed. I guess I should say thank you for financing my studies, Australians!

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