Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

A class approach to migrant workers

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Malcolm Turnbull’s government announced the abolition of the hated 457 temporary work visa program in April. This scheme was behind numerous exploitation scandals and will not be mourned. The government claims their motivation for scrapping the visa was to prioritise the needs of local workers. But behind the spin, this government has no genuine policies in place to help the jobless or underemployed.

Visas granted under the 457 scheme are a type of ‘bonded labour’ that ties the migrant worker to their boss. If they are fired or quit they only have a very short time to find another employer before they are deported. The new visa categories that replace the 457 visa will operate in a very similar way, and in some instances, they are worse as even less rights are afforded to the worker. This includes the pathway to the security of permanent residency being lengthened, or cut off entirely.

Originally introduced in 1996, 457 visas were said to be justified as a measure to temporarily fill shortages of skilled workers. The truth is that they have always been used to undermine local wages and conditions, as employers are the ones who say where there are ‘shortages’.

There has been widespread documentation over the years of scandalous exploitation of temporary migrant workers. In 2006, then Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone boasted that the 457 visa scheme helped to stop unions negotiating higher wages on the basis of the mining construction boom.

There is no doubt that some sectors are facing real skills shortages. For the most part shortages exist because employers do not want to pay out of their profits for training and education, either directly or through taxes. At the same time de-skilling has occurred in line with the major parties turning education into a for-profit commodity.

Funding cuts to TAFE and universities, the widespread introduction of private for-profit colleges and huge reductions in apprenticeship places in the public sector are all examples of how the government has contributed to the problems.

Socialists demand a huge increase in funding for training and education, and for employers to be bound to mandatory apprentice and trainee quotas. At the same time, we are not opposed to the use of migrant labour to fill genuine skills shortages as long as those workers are being paid the proper rate for the job.

As a means of policing skills shortages, we call for the establishment of democratically elected bodies to determine the truth of the employers’ claims. In the same way that trade unions campaign for control over hiring and wage rates at a workplace level, we need trade union control on a wider scale.

This measure should be combined with an attempt to organise all migrant workers into the trade union movement. This is the best way to ensure that temporary visa schemes are not used to exploit people and drive down local wages and conditions. At the same time, it would ensure that the employers are forced to pay for the skills shortage that they created.

On the political level a serious campaign for the abolition of temporary work visas with restricted working and democratic rights needs to be waged. The best way to stop migrant workers being used to drive down wages is to ensure that they have full work rights. This includes all those on existing visas being given full citizenship rights.

All of this requires a political shift in the labour movement. At the moment, many trade union leaders have been sucked in to the nationalist scapegoating of migrant workers that has been used by both of the major parties. Problems around the lack of jobs are real, but they are not created by migrant workers.

There is plenty of work that needs doing in Australia. The problem is that capitalists refuse to invest and create jobs where they can’t make a sufficient profit. Under a democratic socialist system, the profit motive would be removed and investment would be made on the basis of human need. There would be more than enough work to give everyone a decent job on proper wages and conditions, both locals and migrants alike.

By Kirk Leonard


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