IMMIGRATION: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
European crisis should open door to new migrants
, November 24, 2012
The protracted European debt crisis, which has created economic stagnation and high unemployment throughout the Eurozone, provides an opportunity to redirect Australia’s immigration policy towards these countries, which have high education levels and are culturally similar to Australia.
Historically, most of Australia’s population came from Europe; but with Europe’s growing prosperity over recent decades Australia’s immigration program has shifted towards Asia and the Middle East.
But as Europe’s financial crisis has deepened, the number of Europeans coming to work in Australia has increased. There are at any time around 130,000 people in the country with short-stay working visas, of whom nearly two thirds come from Western Europe, with most of the balance coming from north-east Asia, according to figures compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
This is significantly more than the number of people who migrate to here in any one year.
While many are disparagingly referred to as backpackers, officially they are described as “working holiday-makers”. They are vital to the survival of Australia’s agricultural industries, particularly the tropical fruit industry and cropping, which in some cases would not survive without them.
The work which they undertake is often back-breaking, done in the heat of the summer. Other than farmers, few Australians are willing to do this type of work.
They are employed on the same wages and conditions as all other workers in their respective industries, and much of the money they earn is spent in local communities.
The Australian recently reported that “in rural centres such as the rich cotton and wheat bowl of Moree in northern NSW, more than one-third of the labour on farms and in contract harvesting teams this year is being provided by young foreign workers from Ireland, France, Scotland, Denmark and Germany. Most are in Australia on working holiday … visas” (The Australian, November 9, 2012).
The newspaper reported that farmers who have tried to have the strict conditions of their valued workers’ visas relaxed have been rebuffed by the Immigration Department. The minister, Chris Bowen, suggested that they should try to negotiate a labour agreement through a union, which might be approved, but family farms are not willing to go down that road.
It seems that, once again, bureaucrats employed in secure government jobs in air-conditioned offices in Canberra and the Australian state capital cities are telling Australian farmers how to manage their farms.
Many working visa holders are also employed in the hospitality industry. In order to recruit trained staff, the Australian hotel industry has recently been recruiting people from Ireland; but there are many equally well-qualified workers anxious to come to Australia from continental Europe, including Italy and Spain where the financial crisis has caused widespread unemployment, particularly among the young. In Spain, around 50 per cent of young people are unemployed.
Those with short-term working visas are subject to quite onerous restrictions on the time they are allowed to remain in Australia — with employment on any farm restricted to six months and a maximum stay here of two years — despite the fact that the industries in which they are employed are desperate for labour. The restrictions were established many years ago, when conditions were totally different from those which exist today.
As the National Farmers Federation has recently argued, the conditions under which such visa-holders remain here should be substantially relaxed.
They should also be given a path towards long-term visas and permanent residence in Australia, as is accorded to people who come here on business visas.
Apart from those on short-stay working visas, there are a further 130,000 people in Australia on long-term business visas. These are substantially more generous than the short-term visas, but effectively require people to be nominated by employers, and are restricted to people who have designated business skills (e.g., university degrees) relevant to their employment. Of this number, around 40 per cent come from Western Europe.
Not surprisingly, a significant proportion of business visa holders end up applying for permanent residence and many become Australian citizens. They are the largest single source of current immigration.
Our immigration policy is paradoxical. This country seems unable to control its borders to halt an influx of boat-people from countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, who arrive on Australian territory after having paid for flights to Indonesia. At the same time, it severely restricts entry to willing young workers, mainly from Europe, who keep some of Australia’s most important rural industries afloat.
There needs to be a review of Australia’s working visas, to facilitate the entry of more young workers from Western Europe, and a relaxation of the conditions under which they work in this country.