Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Skills shortages and migrant labour

Reading Time: 4 minutes

After years of demonising migrants, John Howard is now so worried about Australia running out of workers that he now wants to embark on an international recruitment drive.The coalition wants 20,000 additional skilled workers to be allowed into the country next financial year, taking the total skilled migrant intake to nearly 100,000.

This is a different tune to that the government was playing only a few years ago whilst it was whipping up racism and threatening Australians that hoards of refugees would be storming our shores and taking our jobs. These comments have now been revealed for the lies that they were and the reality is that Australia is now facing a skills shortage crisis.

Why do we have a skills shortage?

Both the bosses and the union movement agree that we have a skills shortage, even employer organisations are pointing out that in the skilled trade areas we now have completion of apprenticeship rates 24 per cent below what they were in 1996. The Howard government has contributed to this through its dismal record on funding for the TAFE system. For example in the 2003/04 budget there was no increase in funding at all for the TAFE system. Many state budgets went even further and actually delivered a decrease in funding in real terms. This reflects the policies of neo-liberalism being applied to our training and education systems both at the state and federal levels.

It’s been obvious that the bosses have also failed to invest sufficiently in the TAFE system and in traditional apprenticeships to meet the demand for labour. The nature of capitalism is that most bosses have a short term approach to profit making and see training as wasted money, better put to use in lining their own pockets.

Apprenticeships for years have also not been made attractive to young people, at the moment apprentices are barely paid more than the unemployment benefit and in many cases bosses use apprentices as another form of cheap labour exploiting their vulnerability and not providing them with thorough on the job training.

Why do the bosses support increased migration?

The reason for Howard shifting his position on migrants is that he will often need scapegoats to blame for the many social and economic problems that capitalism creates for workers. Blaming migrants for these problems distracts attention from government spending cuts and other attacks on workers. But on other occasions, as we are seeing now, he will be put under pressure from employer organisations to provide pools of cheap and unorganised labour to fulfil the needs of big business. The other reason bosses argues for higher immigration of skilled labour is that all of the costs of training have been paid for overseas.

What about refugees, aren?t they a burden on the economy?

The reality is that through their demand for goods and services refugees create many more jobs than they could possibly take.Already we have thousands of refugees in Australia; many of them are highly skilled workers who are either prevented from being able work because of repressive immigration laws including mandatory detention or they are currently propping up the low-wage economy in areas like the agricultural sector.

Instead of locking up refugees like criminals in detention centres which costs millions of dollars a year it would be much cheaper, not to mention more humane, to provide them with training and work opportunities. This would encourage them to play a valuable role in society. In the name of boosting the profits of Australian big business both the Liberals and the Labor Party support globalisation and neo-liberalism whose exploitative policies force many workers to flee their country and seek refugee status in countries like Australia.

What attitude should the labour movement take towards migrant labour?

Capitalist exploitation causes social and economic problems both for migrant workers and the rest of the population. Only the bosses benefit if workers blame each other for these problems. Instead of letting the bosses play migrant workers off against Australian workers the trade union movement should be aiming to recruit these workers to our ranks ensuring that they we are all getting the same wages and conditions. This would cut across the bosses’ tactic of ‘divide and rule’.

Under capitalism the bosses are free to move capital to wherever it makes the highest profit whilst workers are forced through immigration controls to work where they are going to be most heavily exploited. We are now living in a very competitive global economy and as the bosses aim to increase their profits, workers will be facing increased levels of exploitation right across the world. It is all the more important now that just as the bosses have globalised, we in the labour movement must do the same. An injury to one is an injury to all.

What the Socialist Party stands for:


– Solidarity amongst the labour movement throughout the world to fight the agenda of the bosses and global capitalism.
– For Australian unions to form links with and actively support, through solidarity boycotts and industrial action, workers in struggle internationally.
– Create a regional federation of trade unions to co-ordinate workers’ solidarity and lift wage levels for all workers in our region. This will not only stop bosses importing workers purely to use as a form of cheap labour but also provide a disincentive to bosses to shift plants offshore.

Training and jobs

– For an end to low paid, “no future” traineeships. For a living wage for all students, apprentices and trainees. For all training programs to be worked out and overseen by democratically-elected committees of trade unions and community representatives.
– Ensure full time jobs are guaranteed on completion of training.
– No to deregulated and ‘in-house’ apprenticeships. For employers to be responsible for funding all training programs and related costs.

Migration and refugees

– Oppose all discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion. Workers have more in common with other workers internationally than they do with any boss.
– For unions to recruit migrant workers to their ranks and not collaborate with the bosses and the state dobbing in ?illegals? to the immigration department. Fight the bosses not migrants!
– For an increase in immigration to boost the economy. For all migrants and refugees to be allowed to stay, not just those who are deemed to provide the bosses with more profits.
– For all detention centres to be closed immediately – jobs, healthcare and education for refugees and all workers – not jail.

By Anthony Main


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