This chapter considers pathways to permanency for temporary visa holders and issues around social cohesion. Of particular focus are: the shift from permanent to temporary migration; the benefits of permanent migration; the decreasing pathways to permanent migration; and the effects of this decrease. Finally, the chapter examines the potential benefits of increasing pathways to permanent migration.
Shift from permanent to temporary migration
Australia's migration system has historically been one where migrants settle permanently in Australia. Since the 1990s, however, Australia's focus on permanent migration and family reunion has been replaced by an emphasis on temporary migration, both short and long-term, to meet skills gaps and labour shortages in the economy.
As outlined in chapter 2, temporary migration to Australia has grown significantly, and it is now the main contributor to Australia's migration intake. As of 31 July 2020, there were approximately 1.9 million individuals on temporary visas in Australia. Of those, around 1.56 million have a right to work attached to their visa as a standard condition. Temporary visa holders with a work right include 664,242 New Zealand citizens, 538,853 international students, 124,074 temporary skilled migrants and 79,030 working holiday makers.
The number of temporary visa holders has been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated border closures. By 30 April 2021, there were approximately 1.7 million individuals on temporary visas in Australia, a significant reduction from the previous year. Many individual visa types were similarly impacted. As at 30 April 2021, temporary visa holders with a work right included: 374,574 international student; 102,722 temporary skilled migrants; and 38,489 working holiday makers.
Business and economy focused reports are generally positive about the impact of the temporary migration programme. For example, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) observed that temporary migration has not had an adverse impact on wages or jobs of local workers, and indeed has significantly boosted the economy. While the shift to increased temporary migration has been rationalised in terms of the needs of the economy, concerns have also been raised about the impact this change is having on social cohesion, settlement support services, specific cohorts of visa holders and industries.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, and continues to have, a serious impact on Australia's economy and labour market. It has also highlighted and exacerbated the vulnerabilities faced by many temporary visa holders. However, the disruption to migration caused by the pandemic may provide the Australian Government with a unique opportunity to recalibrate its migration programme to ensure there are clear, consistent and accessible pathways for temporary visa holders seeking to transition to permanent residency.
Benefits of permanent migration
Australia's permanent migration programme has been designed to meet Australia's economic, demographic and labour market needs, with a strong focus on skilled migration particularly to regional Australia.
Recognising the significant economic benefits skilled migrants bring, the permanent migration programme has been a predominantly skilled programme since the mid-1990s, with current planning levels allocating approximately two-thirds of the migration programme to skilled visa categories. These economic benefits include improved labour force participation and productivity. Skilled migrants also help businesses to source skills that are difficult to develop at short notice and contribute more to Government revenue through taxation than they receive through government services and benefits.
Decreasing pathways to permanency
The committee received evidence that, as Australia has shifted from a permanent migration system towards one more focused on temporary migration, the available pathways to permanency for temporary visa holders have decreased and become increasingly difficult to navigate.
The committee was advised of the increasingly limited and complex pathways to permanent residency for temporary visa holders. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) advised the committee that pathways to permanency have been removed for over two-thirds of skilled occupations and that many highly skilled occupations are no longer available for skilled migration.
Similarly, the Scanlon Foundation observed that the recent introduction of the Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visa deliberately prevents a transition to permanent residency for people who have an occupation on the Short-term Skilled Occupation List (STSOL).
Echoing this view, Ms Teresa Liu, Managing Partner Australia and New Zealand, Fragomen, told that committee that:
… previously there was a stronger link between the temporary and the permanent migration programs due to employer sponsorship. As such, if you came in as a temporary visa holder under the employer scheme in a skilled occupation list, there would be clear pathways towards permanent residency. Under the current system with the differences of occupation lists that exist not all occupations on a short-term skills shortage list would actually lead to a permanent outcome. Or, in fact, amendments might occur to a shortage list which is to give a pathway to permanent residency that might be amended over time. That might mean an individual can no longer meet a permanent outcome.
Similarly, Dr Chris Wright observed that:
… when Australia moved towards temporary visas in the late 1990s, the permanent pathway was pretty well established. It was, I think, relatively easy for people to transition from temporary visas to permanent visas. There's a lot that's changed in recent years, but I see no reason why somebody coming to Australia, studying, working and in various ways contributing to Australian society shouldn't have an opportunity to get reasonable access to apply for permanent residency. That seems to have been a prevailing view for much of the 20th century and into the early 21st century, but, for reasons unbeknownst to me, it has been whittled away, particularly under this government, and I think that that needs to be reconsidered.
Effects of decreasing pathways to permanency
The experience that many temporary visa holders gain in the Australian workforce, means they are often well placed to continue to make a positive contribution to Australia, when seeking to transition to permanent residency. However, the erosion of pathways to permanency, coupled with the increasing complexity and administrative delays of applications (as outlined in chapter 2), is having negative implications for Australia's long-term social cohesion and increasing the vulnerability of temporary visa holders to exploitation. Moreover, evidence received highlights that many of the issues associated with the decreased number of pathways for temporary visa holders have been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The current policy settings around the temporary-permanent migration pathway have potentially significant implications for Australia's long-term social cohesion. The lack of a clear pathway or timeframe can inhibit temporary residents from developing a sense of belonging to Australia as they feel permanently temporary. As a result, the multi-step migration process is creating a cohort of people who are:
… not quite Australian—settled but unsettled, living in a state of extended temporariness and uncertainty that is distressing and demoralising. It can leave in limbo a range of temporary visa holders who have lived, studied and worked in Australia for many years, feel at home here, and want to stay, but are unable to find a foothold, especially amid ever-shifting migration regulatory settings.
This view was echoed by Ms Violet Roumeliotis, Chief Executive Officer, Settlement Services International, who told the committee, that Australia's temporary migration policy settings have significant implications for long-team social cohesion:
… temporary migration provides an opportunity for those who are well placed to contribute positively both economically and socially to Australia and to become permanent residents. However, the current short-term demand-driven nature of temporary migration is often at odds with the more gradual and multidimensional process of settlement and integration …to safeguard social cohesion, our temporary migration settings should recognise and support newcomers, including temporary residents, to integrate and participate in society…the lack of a clear pathway or timeframe can inhibit temporary residents from developing a sense of belonging to Australia as they can feel permanently temporary. This has potential negative ramifications for long-term social cohesion in Australia and blunts their ability to maximise their contribution.
Similarly, Ms Lauren Stark, Senior Policy and Project Officer, Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia (FECCA), observed that:
… too many people and their dependants are temporary for a number of years and these are often young productive and well-educated individuals who are predisposed to contribute positively to Australia. They pay taxes and many prepare to become permanent residents of Australia in the future, yet the pathway to permanency has become increasingly more difficult over the past years, making people feel unwelcome.
Increased vulnerability to exploitation
The committee heard that with no timely or accessible pathway to permanency, temporary visa holders are more vulnerable to exploitation. Unions NSW observed that 'the transiency associated with not having a pathway to permanency in Australia breeds a vulnerability to exploitation.' This view was echoed by Maurice Blackburn Lawyers who submitted that the failure to provide clear pathways to permanent employment can leave temporary migrant workers stuck in a perpetual state of limbo, susceptible to unscrupulous employment practices.
To reduce temporary visa holders increased vulnerability to exploitation, Dr Chris Wright, suggested that where temporary migration is necessary:
… a clear pathway from temporary to permanent migration should be established. The overwhelming weight of international research and historical evidence from Australia indicates that permanent residency and citizenship are key factors enhancing the likelihood of migrant workers being treated fairly in the labour market.
The committee received evidence that reduced pathways to permanency have had a detrimental impact on a range of industries including:
the agricultural industry;
the international education sector;
the tourism and hospitality sector; and
The agricultural industry
As previously noted, it is often difficult to attract and retain a local agricultural workforce in Australia due to a number of factors, including the nature of the work and the regional location. These factors have had a significant impact on the availability, quality, and retention of a highly productive workforce.
As a result, the sector relies on relatively large numbers of temporary visa holders to perform a range of roles in the industry through a suite of visa arrangements and programmes. Such arrangements allow for temporary visa holders to work in agriculture and fill short term, low and semi-skilled labour and long term and higher-skilled positions, where Australians are not able to fill these positions. For example, as at 30 April 2021, there were 8,284 seasonal workers and 38,489 Working Holiday Maker (WHM) visa holders in Australia. The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA) contends that 'the agricultural industry is overly reliant on WHM visa holders, who make up 80% of the harvest workforce'. Temporary visa holders therefore make a significant contribution to the development of Australia's agricultural industry – filling labour shortages, introducing new agricultural commodities and practices, innovation and knowledge transfer.
The AFPA suggested that while permanent migration pathways are not suitable for industry's harvest labour roles, permanent migration pathways are suitable for skilled, full-time ongoing roles within industry. AFPA noted that the industry supports the ongoing use of permanent migration pathways for specialised skillsets in industry, where there are demonstrably no Australians able to fill these roles.
The Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC) advocated for a pathway to permanency for temporary visa holders irrespective of whether they were subclass 482 skilled workers, subclass 403 Pacific Island Scheme workers, or subclass 417 working holiday workers. The AMIC noted that the meat industry wants and needs a permanent workforce, which provides financial, social and community stability. These factors are particularly in play in regional Australia where the local abattoir is usually the biggest employer in town.
The Rural Jobs and Skills Alliance (RJSA) submitted that there are significant social and economic benefits of having permanent migrants in regional industries. As such, the RJSA expressed concern about the lack of a permanency pathway for those on the Short-Term Skills Occupation Lists (STSOL). To this end the RSJA welcomed changes made in March 2019 that saw a number of farming occupations moved from the STSOL to the Regional Occupations List. The specific occupations affected were: cotton grower; deer farmer; fruit or nut grower; grain, oilseed or pasture grower; mixed crop farmer; goat farmer; sugar cane grower; crop farmers; beef cattle farmer; dairy cattle farmer; mixed livestock farmer; pig farmer; sheep farmer; livestock farmers; mixed crop and livestock farmer. The RJSA noted that this change has meant that foreign skilled farm workers can now access four-year visas which can be renewed and provides a pathway to permanent residency.
The Australian Pork Limited (APL) advised the committee that the temporary skilled migration programme has been an indispensable part of its industry's response to the challenge of varying labour availability and skills shortages in the regional labour market. The APL advised the committee, that in the 2018- 19 industry survey, 34 percent of respondents had at least one TSS subclass 482 visa holder on their staff.
The APL informed the committee that, via the TSS Regional Occupations List, the temporary skilled migration programme currently provides a pathway for skilled migrants working in pig production to gain permanent residency in Australia. The APL contends that the existence of this pathway is a critical aspect of the programme, facilitating entry into the Australian labour market of skills necessary to the livestock-rearing industries. Moreover, as the migrants become part of the Australian workforce, they contribute to closing the skills gap in the longer-term.
Industry labour agreements enable businesses to sponsor skilled overseas workers where there is a demonstrated need that cannot be met in the Australian labour market, and visa programmes are not available. There are nine industry labour agreements that cover industries such as dairy, meat, fishing, horticulture and pork.
Ms Heidi Reid, Policy Director, APL, highlighted to the committee that as the Pork Industry Labour Agreement allows for a pathway into permanency, the APL finds that there is:
… greater stability created within these businesses because those temporary migrants are really looking to move into that permanent pathway. So they are sticking around, creating stability. That's been really good for retention of our local staff as well.
The committee received evidence regarding the importance of ensuring there are sufficient pathways and opportunities for graduates from Australian institutions in order to enhance the attractiveness and competitiveness of Australian international education sector. To this end, Ms Vicki Thomson, Chief Executive Officer, the Group of Eight, informed the committee that pathways to permanent migration can be powerful attractors for international students. Ms Thomson also reminded the committee of the importance of Australia remaining internationally competitive and attractive as a study destination:
… we need to be mindful of what key competitor countries are doing—countries like Canada, the UK and the US. Part of Canada's attraction as a study destination is the immigration pathway where international students are awarded extra points through the federal Express Entry system. We should remember that the UK suffered years of decline, especially from Indian students, following the removal of the post-study work visa in 2012.
CEDA submitted that while there is a common misconception that international students can easily attain permanent residency upon completion of their degree, recent evidence has shown that only 18 per cent of international students go on to obtain permanent residency. Moreover, AMES Australia submitted that student and graduate visa holders face long-term and multi-staged pathways, involving lengthy processing periods.
To this end, Ms Thanushki Kankanange, Skilled Migration Specialist, AMES Australia, informed the committee that:
… over the last four years, we've seen the 189 visa, which was a general skilled migration visa used by a lot of international students to get permanent residency, go down from over 30,000 allocations to about 6,500 places. The very limited pathways mean that a lot of people have to continue to apply for further student visas or other temporary visas to remain in Australia, and that sometimes means they're undertaking studies that they don't need and are incurring further financial debt.
The Scanlon Foundation Research Institute highlighted the impact that a lack of permanent pathways can have on international students noting that international students are the most vulnerable to long term temporariness and the impact this has on their sense of belonging, worth and acceptance in Australian society:
… many international students have come to Australia on a student visa, then gone on to a post graduate qualification. Moving to a temporary graduate visa thereafter, an individual may have resided in Australia for eight years without permanency and without a defined pathway to permanent residence.
Additionally, Fragomen drew the committee's attention to the potential benefits of injecting the permanent visa programme with a young, educated and talented workforce that has already adapted to life in Australia.
Tourism and hospitality sector
Like the agricultural industry, there are workforce shortages, particularly in regional areas, in Australia's tourism and hospitality sector. In his analysis of the 2016 Census data, Professor Peter McDonald found temporary entrants represent 16.3 per cent of men and 14.4 per cent of women employed in the hospitality occupations. Students were the largest visa category in these occupations although working holiday makers were also prominent.
The Australian Hotels Association (AHA) and Tourism Accommodation Australia (TAA), in their submission, noted the following factors that contribute to substantial labour market gaps, particularly in regional areas, across the sector:
limited applicants with sufficient skills, education and experience;
competition from other sectors;
seasonality of demand in regional areas; and
a lack of interest in careers in hospitality and tourism.
The AHA and TAA acknowledged that the Designated Area Migration Agreement (DAMA) goes some way to recognising the skill and staff shortages the tourism and hospitality sector faces and highlighted that a key point of attraction in the DAMA is the permanent residency pathway.
Given the difficulty sourcing local workers, hospitality and tourism businesses rely on the migration system to secure both skilled and low-skilled workers when they are unable to source a local worker. The AHA and TAA submitted that international workers are important in: filling vacancies unable to be filled by the local labour supply; training and mentoring Australian workers; and in facilitating the global exchange of skills through intra-corporate transfers.
The AHA and TAA further explained that the use of temporary visa holders does not present a cheaper option, particularly once time and costs associated with administration, sponsorship training, and application fees are taken into consideration. To this end, the AHA and TAA note that the average cost to hotels of employing a person on a STSOL visa averages $6,100 with a maximum of approximately $9,000. For a MLTSSL visa the cost averages $6,500 with a maximum of approximately $11,000.
Temporary visa holders and their dependents are generally ineligible for government income support, English language assistance, employment support, and often Medicare, depending on the nature of their visa. Furthermore, most temporary visa holders are also ineligible to access funded support from settlement agencies.
As the temporary migration programme is specifically designed to attract self‑sufficient temporary visa holders, many will not require access to any of these services. However, temporary visa holders may also require assistance as a result of issues such as a health pandemic, domestic and family violence, family breakdown, sudden loss of a job, or a situation of worker exploitation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that some temporary visa holders may find themselves in need of assistance. During the COVID-19 pandemic many temporary visa holders in Australia have been faced with the difficult situation of having no means to return to their home countries, no access to paid work, and no access to income or social support. Ms Kankanange, AMES Australia, told the committee that:
… while temporary migrants live, work, study and pay taxes in Australia, they have fewer entitlements than other residents enjoy. As an example, the exclusion of many temporary visa holders from the welfare packages introduced in response to the COVID-19 crisis, such as JobKeeper and JobSeeker, highlighted the social inequities faced by temporary residents. Many had to rely on family, friends, their communities, charities and service providers for food vouchers, one-off hardship payments and access to essential items.
Similarly, Universities Australia, submitted that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some potential risks surrounding the responsibility of social welfare for people who are in Australia on temporary visas. Temporary visa holders provide great benefit to Australia but lack the basic safety net afforded to Australian citizens and permanent residents. Universities Australia suggested that the provision of basic welfare to temporary visa holders during times of exceptional hardship would be a fundamental first step to ensuring that an economic or health crisis does not escalate into a humanitarian one.
In advocating for improvements to settlement services, the Settlement Council of Australia contended that settlement services are inadequately funded or empowered to support temporary visa holders who unexpectedly require assistance. As such, it suggested that access to settlement services should be extended to temporary visa holders (or at least those who are on a pathway to permanency) as this would ensure the social and economic benefits of settlement can accrue sooner, for both the migrants themselves, and for Australian society as a whole. Moreover, it urged increased funding for the settlement sector during the pandemic to support temporary visa holders who remain in Australia and are facing hardship due to COVID-19 pandemic.
The committee was also told that improving access to settlement services can lead to increased economic and social benefits in regional communities. Ms Kankanange, AMES Australia, suggested that:
… providing settlement support at a local government level, with access to affordable housing, schooling for children and welcoming communities can lead to increased retention of migrants and the known positive impact, economically and socially, in regional areas.
Impact on specific cohorts
The reduction in pathways to permanency for temporary visa holders has also impacted specific cohorts of people, including:
Special Category Visas (SCV) holders;
Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEV) holders;
Temporary Protection Visas (TPV) holders;
women on temporary visas; and
The erosion of the temporary-permanent migration pathway is also reflected in the increasing number of people on bridging visas. As at March 2019, there were almost 230,000 people in Australia on bridging visas awaiting the outcome of another visa application process or appeal. Settlement Services International contended that bridging visas act as a proxy for how the Australian Government is managing demand for the intersection of temporary and permanent migration and the existence of such a large group of people means waiting times for visa processing are longer, and additional uncertainty is enveloping the temporary migration system.
The Scanlon Foundation Research Institute further observed that, as with other categories of temporary visa holders, the lack of services available to some bridging visa holders creates social and economic disparities that leave them vulnerable, while preventing them from access to or meaningful participation in different spheres of Australian life.
Women on temporary visas
Women who are on temporary visas can be vulnerable to particular types of family violence due to the power imbalance that exists between a visa holder and their sponsor. The Department of Social Services (DSS) advised that it funds the Temporary Visa Holders Experiencing Violence Pilot (the pilot), which commenced in April 2021. The pilot specifically aims ‘to support women on temporary visas, affected by domestic and family violence, to access social services, legal assistance and migration support’. DSS advised that as part of the pilot, the Australian Red Cross is collecting data on the category of visa held by temporary visa holders accessing this service.
Women on temporary visas can also become victims of modern-slavery offences such as forced marriage, human trafficking, servitude, and forced labour. Furthermore these women face significant barriers to accessing support services, social security, and housing support when they do experience family violence in Australia. These issues are further compounded and complex for those who are in rural and regional areas. For example, inTouch submitted that while Government migration policies have been directing migrants to settle in regional and rural areas through various visa streams, women who move to Australia on these visa streams either as employees or partners of employees, are restricted in terms of where they can live, study and work.
The conditions of some visas require visa holders to remain within a particular region; however, residing in a regional or rural area can make accessing support services difficult. These barriers, together with a lack of cultural and language support, can cause immense social isolation that is exposing women and their children to significant risks to their safety, including by making it more difficult to leave, and to establish ongoing safety and security if a visa holder leaves an intimate relationship.
To address these issues, inTouch recommended an expansion of in-language and in-culture support for women on temporary visas across Australia, and readily available information on migration and family law in easy English and a range of languages.
Safe Haven Enterprise and temporary protection visas
The Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) and Temporary Protection visas (TPVs) are available to onshore asylum applicants recognised as refugees or who otherwise satisfy Australia's humanitarian protection obligations but who arrived in Australia without a valid visa or were refused immigration clearance at the border. These visas are valid for five and three years respectively, after which time the visa holder has to have their claims reassessed. TPV policy permits refugees to apply for another temporary visa. However, SHEV holders are able to apply for a permanent migration visa after completing study or work in a designated regional or rural area without accessing income support for a minimum period of three-and-a-half-years.
While SHEVs offer a pathway to permanent residency, the committee received evidence that highlighted the great difficulty that SHEV holders have in meeting the criteria to apply for permanent migration. The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) contended the threshold for eligibility for SHEV holders is unreasonably high and is likely to exclude a significant majority of people on SHEVs. For example, the requirement to work or study for 42 months out of 5 years in a regional area without access to government social security support is an onerous one. In this context, and noting the significant employment challenges that SHEV holders face, the JRS argued that it is unlikely that the majority of SHEV holders are going to be able to meet the 42-month requirement without access to English or vocational education, to financial support while upskilling, and to specialist job readiness and placement support beyond JobActive. Additionally unless they can obtain a scholarship, SHEV holders are required to pay international student fees to enrol in vocational or tertiary education courses.
In its submission, Community, Multicultural Australia, Refugee and Immigration Legal Service, highlighted that there are there are many individuals on TPVs as well as SHEVs who have lived, worked and contributed to Australian communities for many years – yet have no prospects of permanent residency or citizenship in Australia. Moreover, given their visa status, those on TPVs or SHEVs are at risk of exploitation and may struggle to secure employment particularly quality, meaningful and ongoing employment.
The committee also received evidence of the significant economic contribution that TPV and SHEV holders could make if provided with a pathway to permanent residency. To this end, Ms Laura John, Solicitor and Migration Agent, Refugee Legal, told the committee that:
… there are long-term benefits to ensuring that TPV and SHEV holders are able to have a pathway to permanent residency, and those benefits certainly would include economic benefits through enabling them to participate fully in the workforce.
Similarly, the JRS suggested that SHEV and TPV holders should be afforded a realistic pathway to permanent protection. The JRS also noted that there is a plethora of evidence to suggest that refugees who have permanent protection can rebuild their lives and contribute to the economy faster and in more productive ways.
Special Category Visa holders
Under a long-standing agreement between Australia and New Zealand, New Zealand citizens are granted a Special Category Visa (SCV) visa upon entry to Australia (subject to health and character grounds) which allows them to live and work in Australia without restriction. As such, New Zealand citizens comprise the largest cohort of temporary visa holders with work rights in Australia. As at 31 July 2020, there were 664,242 New Zealand citizens in Australia with work rights.
SCV holders who arrived before 27 February 2001 are considered permanent residents while in Australia and eligible to apply for citizenship. However, while SCV holders who arrived after this date are allowed to live and work indefinitely in Australia, there is no pathway to permanent residence or citizenship. Rather these SCV holders must first apply for and be granted a permanent visa in order to gain citizenship.
Ms Stark, FECCA, told the committee that while New Zealand citizens on SCVs who arrived after 2001 are eligible to stay in Australia indefinitely, they are classed as temporary residents and do not have clear pathway to citizenship. Ms Stark stated:
… there are a lot of complications with this group of people, which is a very large group of people that should be looked at quite closely. For a lot of people who are living in the community and contributing a lot, including paying tax for many years, there's a gap in the journey to citizenship, which includes a lot of money and a lot of confusion for a lot of people.
In its submission, OzKiwi informed the committee that, without a pathway to permanent residency, New Zealanders are excluded from areas such as the Australian Defence Force, Commonwealth government and some academic roles unless they are an Australian citizen.
The Multicultural Council of Tasmania recommended that the pathway to Australian citizenship for New Zealand citizens residing in Australia should be made easier and that the direct pathway to Australian citizenship for New Zealand citizens who resided in Australia in 2001 should be extended to all New Zealand citizens residing in Australia.
Similarly the Monash Migration and Inclusion Centre with Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre suggested that accessible pathways towards citizenship should be created for all New Zealander long term residents.
As noted in Chapter 4, Clibborn and Wright outlined in their submission that Australia is host to a large and growing population of immigrants working without authorisation, either working in breach of visa conditions or working without any visa authorisation. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) observed that while it is difficult to estimate the total number of undocumented workers, this group may still include up to 100, 000 persons.
These undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation in the form of wage theft. The United Workers Union (UWU) submission noted that multiple reports confirm that the Australian horticulture industry has become 'structurally reliant' on the labour of undocumented workers with reports estimating that between 50,000 to 90,000 undocumented workers currently participate in the harvest labour force in Australia.
In a supplementary submission, Associate Professor Bassina Farbenblum and Associate Professor Laurie Berg (Farbenblum and Berg) highlighted the following challenges in relation to undocumented workers in the horticulture sector:
workplace exploitation in the horticulture industry, exacerbated by visa conditions and undocumented migration status;
public health challenges connected with migrant workers' reluctance to seek testing and treatment in relation to COVID-19; and
current and anticipated labour shortages in the horticulture industry caused by border closures.
To address these issues Farbenblum and Berg recommended there be an immediate regularisation of the immigration status of undocumented migrant workers in the agriculture sector and that the Australian Government should immediately identify a pathway for migrants who have overstayed a visa (or whose visa was cancelled) to apply for a substantive visa that would enable them to lawfully remain in Australia and work in the horticulture industry, with essential safeguards for workers and employer accountability.
Similarly, Mr George Robertson, National Coordinator for Farms, United Workers Union, urged the federal government to:
… undertake immediate action to regularise the status of undocumented workers in the horticulture industry, where the exploitation of temporary migrant workers has become most entrenched and where there's a structural reliance on the labour of undocumented workers.
Increasing pathways to permanency
The committee received a range of evidence that highlighted that Australia's long terms interests are best served when temporary migration is considered a genuine pathway to permanent residence in Australia.
As CEDA noted, it is desirable that temporary migration, particularly temporary skilled migration, serves as a de facto pathway to permanent migration. Temporary skilled migrants are relatively young, productive, well-educated and have proven themselves in the Australian workforce. Moreover, temporary migration, allows both the migrant and the employer to assess the long-term fit, including from the migrant's perspective whether they feel comfortable within the broader culture and community that Australia offers.
In addition, as the Group of Eight noted, permanent migration pathways offer Australia the opportunity to supplement domestic talent with skills and knowledge from around the world, to boost existing industries and develop new ones.
The Settlement Council of Australia further observed that having transparent pathways to permanency provides the requisite certainty for temporary visa holders to establish their new lives in Australia and invest in settlement. As such it advocated for the existing pathways to permanency to be enhanced and expanded to provide logical and suitable pathways for temporary visa holders to permanently settle in Australia.
Under the current policy settings, temporary visa holders are encouraged to consider rural and regional locations. Unions NSW submitted that providing a permanency pathway may increase the chance of temporary visa holders staying in these areas. While AMES Australia suggested that accessible pathways should be provided to permanent residency for temporary visa holders who are willing to settle in regional Australia.
The committee received a range of evidence regarding how pathways to permanency could be expanded and improved. For example, the AHA and TAA argued that there should be pathways to permanency for temporary skilled workers in all skilled occupations where there is a demonstrated need from an employer whereas the UWU suggested that permanent transition should not depend upon employer sponsorship. Rather, the UWU proposed that self-nominated permanent visa pathways should be created for temporary workers whose ongoing work in an in-demand sector is evidence in itself of their skills and contribution.
AMES Australia suggested that temporary migration will remain limited for a prolonged period due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the Australian Government should focus on retaining temporary visa holders currently in Australia and providing them accessible pathways for permanent residency and supporting them into employment. However, the Federation of Indian Associations of ACT (FINACT) recommended that the Australian Government review the transition process from temporary to permanent visa and reduce waiting time. It further suggested that the Government review eligibility of temporary residents for permanent residency and create relevant pathways to settle permanently.
A number of submitters suggested that the migration programme should be recalibrated to achieve a better balance between permanent and temporary migration. To this end, the ACTU suggested that the current weighting of Australia's skilled migration programme towards temporary and employer-sponsored pathways should be re-evaluated, with greater emphasis given to the permanent, independent stream as the 'mainstay' of the skilled migration programme.
While other submitters highlighted the significant economic and social contributions that could result from establishing clear and transparent pathways to permanent residence for temporary visa holders. Ms Stark, FECCA, told the committee that by keeping people on temporary visas, Australia is 'definitely missing out on the potential for great[er] contribution to society beyond economic contribution.' Moreover, Ms Stark noted that, to remain internationally competitive, Australia needs clear and transparent pathways to permanency, noting that the supply of migrants is not assured and for Australia to remain a preferred destination for temporary migrants.