Sunday 6 May 2012

Moving to Oz? (IV)

or, "Question but no Answer"

Last Monday (April 30, 2012) the ABC TV program Question and Answer, broadcast live from Dandenong (VIC) and hosted by Tony Jones, was particularly interesting. The debate was about immigration, racism, unemployment and industrial relations, subjects I have dealt with, to some extent (see here, here and here).

I recommend readers the show in its entirety. However, here I'll focus in an exchange on immigration policy and unemployment.

After a discussion of the problems African migrants face to find a job in Dandenong, and 22:25 minutes into the episode, Dave Simpson, a Caucasian member of the public asked the following question:
"Good evening, panel. My question is why today, with the high number of unemployed, especially in Dandenong being 12% currently I read, why do we have a leader of the Australian Government suggesting that we bring in migrants to this country to replace our jobs which we're struggling to keep ourselves? Why don't we put our finances into improving programs for the skills of our own people and keeping our families growing?"
I am quoting Simpson's whole question, in an attempt to give readers the full picture. I urge those interested to consult the transcript and footage of this particular part of the program, should they find it necessary.

Local libertarians and progressives (even many Marxists), alike, often feel racism underlies questions like this, either because:
  1. people asking such questions just use the lack of jobs as an excuse to justify migration cuts, or,
  2. even if racism/xenophobia does not motivate the question, it could be interpreted that way or used to those ends.
I'll state it clearly here: I don't know this Simpson man, let alone his motivations. So, I can't vouch for him. Regardless, I find these two standard answers/objections to Simpson's question absurd and I don't think we should ignore it.

However, readers are free to judge by themselves.

Panelist 1: Mark Dreyfus (MP, Labor)

Jones passed the question on to Dreyfus, who spoke at length and in generalities; thus, I'm forced to summarize. For him immigration policy has been inherently bipartisan and is justified because:
"There is a shortage of skills in many industries in this country and part of the immigration program is directed to filling those skills (...). And part of the immigration program is about family reunion. (...)"
To focus the question back from generalities and into Dandenong's case, Jones insisted:
"So what have you identified as happening here in Dandenong, where clearly you've got double the rate of unemployment of the rest of the country or at least of the nearest city, plus you've got a very high rate of youth unemployment? In fact among Sudanese it's 39%."
Distilling Dreyfus' long answer, perhaps one could say he considers racism is indeed a problem.

This could explain why African migrants have a higher unemployment rate than locals, but does not necessarily explain why the aggregate unemployment level in Dandenong doubles that in Melbourne, according to Jones (see above). In any case, Dreyfus did not address an eventual racism in Dandenong or Simpson's concern.

Second panelist: Peter Reith

Reith (former Workplace Relations and Defense minister, last Coalition Government):
"Well, I think the - some of the issues that have been raised, racism and skills, are obviously relevant to the unemployment rate but there are also wider policy positions which affect this and when you think of it from the point of view of the employer, you know, governments should have programs which basically say to employers we want you to give somebody a job, we want to make it easy for you to give somebody a job and the truth is that in that regard, I'll take one issue, which is a big issue for the small business community, a lot of them don't want to give somebody a job because they think they'll end up having to pay unfair dismissal go away money. Now, I think we should do something about that. For small business and for larger business, many of them have to pay payroll tax. So they give somebody a job. What's their reward? Well, they've got to pay tax to the Government. Personally, I think we should get rid of payroll tax. It's a big call but I think it's something we need to do."
That's the full, unedited text of Reith's intervention. So, in a single breath Reith says that some of the issues raised are relevant, and then goes on to ignore them. Next he turns a discussion about unemployment, racism and immigration in Dandenong into a discussion about what's profitable to employers, in general.

I've written about this subject before (see here and here), as it appears to be the raison d'etre of the Liberal Party.

Jones rebukes Reith:
"Peter Reith, the rest of the country has a very low level unemployment and the same laws apply there."

Third panelist: Ged Kearney (ACTU, president)

Kearney accurately notes that "I always find it amazing that whenever there's a problem the Liberal Party (...) turns to drop wages, get rid of penalty rates, sack someone".

But this, however accurate, doesn't answer Simpson's question nor addresses the situation of African migrants in Dandenong.

Jones notes that:
"I'm just going to bring both you and Peter actually back to the question. The last question we asked was whether jobs are being taken by migrants. That was the essence of that question."

Exchange between Kearney and Mirabella

Urged by Jones, Kearney proposed that the entry of 457 temporary residence work visas be conditioned upon employers, specially big mining firms, also re-training a proportionate number of local unemployed workers, warning that "workers on 457 visas are often exploited", as "they have a sickle [sic] hanging over their head saying if you don't accept these lower-than-market wages, for example, we can send you home".

Replying to Kearney, Sophie Mirabella (MP, Liberal/Coalition) intervened. Leaving aside the partisan point-scoring, her answer boils down to: "There is nothing wrong with bringing in people on 457 visas which is very flexible, because you can impose conditions on which employer you will work for and which location and for how long you will be needed. So when those workers are no longer needed they can go back to the country where they came from (...)".


In my opinion, Kearney (ACTU), with her 457 visas/re training proposal, came closest to address Dave Simpson's question. How effective that proposal would be, however, is debatable: there is little to be gained from training the unemployed, if there are no jobs or the willingness to hire them.

Nobody, not even Kearney, actually offered anything resembling a solution to the African migrants' problem. In spite of Jones' repeated efforts to focus the discussion, it was evident the thought of Dandenong did not cross the panelists' minds; but if Dandenong as a whole was overlooked, imagine how much thought these people gave the African migrants.

Interestingly, all parties in dispute were in furious agreement about the need to bring in foreign workers. The point of contention, as evidenced by the exchange between Mirabella and Kearney, is the idea of attaching conditions to employers using 457 temporary workers.

Clearly, what in Kearney's view is a problem of the 457 visa program (namely, that it places foreign workers in a position of complete dependency on employers), is what makes the 457 visa program so attractive to Mirabella.

That goes a long way into explaining why Mirabella did not even make a token reference (like Reith did) to the African migrants or to Simpson's question. As long as immigration is convenient to employers, those details are irrelevant.

In Dreyfus' case the motivation seems less evident. If I had to make a guess, I'd say it gives him the moral high ground, without the cost of solving the issues raised by the migrants and Simpson.

In other words: immigration policy is profitable for some and comfortable for others. And that's what matters.

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