Sydney Opera House

This essay, on the reality of Australia’s points-based immigration system, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on cultural appropriation and cultural gatekeeping.) It was published on 14 April 2019, under the headline ‘A points-based system doesn’t end naked prejudice against migrants’.

‘How long have you been living in Australia?’ I asked the cabbie in Melbourne. Three years, he said. He’d come from India. ‘Do you like it here?’ I asked. No, he said. Why not? ‘Would you want to spend your life driving a cab?’

He had trained in IT. He had submitted dozens of job applications after arriving in Australia, the proud possessor of a permanent resident visa. Soon, though, he discovered that the only job many Australians thought he was fit for was driving a cab.

The Australian immigration system, in which potential migrants receive points for wealth, education, good health and language skills, has been lauded by politicians across the world, from Donald Trump to Boris Johnson. Many policymakers are drawn to the idea of a system that admits only high-skilled workers, viewing it as the answer to the supposed problems of low-skilled immigrants lowering wages and failing to integrate.

The reality, however, is different. Many low-paid jobs in Australia, from cab-driving to cleaning, are disproportionately the domain of migrants. How is this possible in an immigration system that supposedly only recruits skilled labour?

Australia introduced its points-based immigration system in the 1970s. The idea was to create a kind of non-racist version of the ‘white Australia’ policy that had held sway for almost a century. Middle-class professionalism now came to replace ‘whiteness’ as the measure of a good migrant. The trouble is, being middle class and skilled guarantees neither a job nor social acceptance.

A study last year showed that of skilled migrants from non-English speaking countries who came to Australia between 2011 and 2016, fewer than a third had found a professional or managerial job. Another study revealed that such migrants were 25% more likely to be in the bottom income quintile than either migrants from English-speaking countries (primarily white migrants) or those born in Australia. The unemployment rate for recent migrants on a permanent visa is more than 50% higher than it is for Australians in general.

Partly this results from an immigration system demanding skills unrelated to those required by the economy. What qualifies as skilled work is, according to the government, defined ‘each year through the budget process… following broad public consultations with state and territory governments, business and community groups and the wider public’. The process, in other words, is designed to match political as much as economic needs.

There is also the question of racism. A study by the economist Andrew Leigh showed that an individual with an Anglo-Saxon name is far more likely to get a job interview than someone with the same qualifications and experience, but with a Chinese, Middle Eastern or Indigenous Australian name.

Recent governments have tried to shift immigration policy away from a predominantly points-based system to one in which migrants are required to have a job offer. They have also increasingly shifted from a policy of permanent residency to the granting of temporary work visas. Temporary workers now make up 11% of Australia’s workforce. They may live in the country for many years on a semi-permanent basis, but lack basic rights, such as access to Medicare or welfare payments, or a pathway to citizenship. They are also often forced to work long hours in terrible conditions for little pay, knowing that were they to complain employers could withdraw their sponsorship, without which many could not remain in Australia. A study last year on Wage Theft in Silence found that a third of foreign temporary workers earned less than half the minimum wage.

All this begins to explain why a country that boasts of welcoming only skilled workers ends up with so many Indian cabbies and Filipino cleaners and why a policy of tying immigration to jobs ends up exploiting migrants at the bottom of the heap. These issues are not unique to Australia; similar problems have arisen in Canada, another nation famous for its points-based, high-skilled, middle-class immigration policy.

Critics of liberal immigration policies often argue for the necessity of tighter controls that permit the entry only of the ‘right kind of migrant’. What Australia exposes is that the obsession with having the ‘right kind of migrant’ often blinds people to the fact that many of the problems are caused not by the ‘wrong kind of migrant’ but by the attitudes, of governments, bosses and the public, to any kind of immigrant.



The photo, of Sydney Opera House at sunset, is mine.


  1. Education and language skills cannot be proof of a person’s employability. However, these statistics show that the Australian government just want low-paid workers and implicate that a well-educated immigrant is equal an Australian labour citizen; which is a manifestation of modern racism and slavery.

  2. I suspect that much of the problem is that the guidance government receives from industry is biased towards keeping costs of skilled workers down, much as happened in Europe with auto workers in generations past.

    There’s a huge number of older skilled workers that are being locked out of the productive workforce, partly by a “commodification of certification” whereby older workers are now expected to have certificates (from one of the many barely-regulated vocational colleges) in skills that they already possess by virtue of long experience. Unemployment of older workers is often hidden under other social service categories such as medical disability.

    I was at a university IT workshop last year where one of the attendees said that his father had designed most of the university’s network systems. The workshop moderator asked what he was doing now. “Driving Uber, because no one will give a job to a 60 year old in IT”.

    Australian companies have a poor record of training and redeveloping their staff, and prefer to go to market for younger and cheaper replacements, even as most Australians are now expected to work until they are 70. The Australian government defines those aged 45 and over as “senior workers”.

    For those that do secure employment, ethnic background seems to pose no obstacle, (especially in IT where more than 80% of a department is likely to be non-Anglo-Saxon); but even with a PhD you may find yourself working poorly-paid zero-hour contracts in retail, call-centres or behind the wheel of a cab. As Australia ages, the skills it really needs replenished from overseas are those needed in human service areas, plus perhaps carers and tradespeople in non-urban areas where migrants are less likely to visit, IT not so much. If a federal government ever gets behind building national infrastructure outside of its handful of large cities, then it might actually need the skilled migrants it advertises for.

  3. damon

    I’ll accept the view that the Australian immigration system has flaws and is unfair.
    Another way of doing it would be what we’ve had in the UK for the last 50 years.
    That’s also had plenty of failings and can be criticised by people with very different views.
    We did let in several million low skilled and poor immigrants from all over the world.
    When you look in detail at how our immigration has changed Britain and how it’s worked out, then maybe Australia was trying to avoid some of the issues we face. Some of our poorest and deprived areas are ones with high immigrant origin populations. And I’ll accept that some of that is because Britain is racist.

    From Kenan’s post we take it that Australia is also pretty racist.
    It’s population is now 25 million – but was only 15 million in 1982.
    So if it’s so racist, why has it increased the diversity of it’s population so much in recent years?
    Is there a consensus to do that? It seems daft that a highly racist country would keep bringing in hundreds of thousands of new immigrants every year if the people were so against it.

    In Britain, our diverse society works well enough if you don’t look too hard at many of the problems and issues it has. MP David Lammy’s outburst on the BBC yesterday hinted at some very big problems indeed.
    He claims he’s only sticking up for his very diverse and heavily BME constituents ….. and says that so many of them are leading such fragile and precarious lives that he can’t allow Brexit to happen, as they are not able to stand any kind of downturn in the economy or reduction of support.
    This was one of David Lammy’s supporters today. I heard him on the radio last night too.
    It’s a sign of a polarised society and the difficulties that immigration and diversity bring.

    So I do wonder whether Australia is trying to avoid issues like communities living side by side but apart, like you get in places like Bradford and Blackburn. Or the London issues we have with disproportionate crime and policing problems.

    Btw, as someone who’s been driving vans and trucks for a living for a couple of decades, I can’t feel a whole lot of sympathy for Kenan’s taxi driver in Melbourne. Welcome to the real world I say.
    I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked where I’m from in Asia and Africa – and on telling them ‘England’ being told how “everyone there is rich”.

    This is serious though. Here’s a black American guy who I rate very highly – (John McWhorter) – explaining how some people in the black population have taken so much comfort from the idea that they are victims of a cruel racist society, that they haven’t been able to give that idea up as the society has gotten much better in recent years. They insist that racism in the US is a bigger problem than it actually is.
    Which sounds just like David Lammy too.

  4. damon

    One thing that makes me question whether it’s just white racism that’s holding some Australian ethnic groups back, is the information that in the US, people who came originally from India are the highest earning demographic in the whole country. With median household incomes of $80,000 compared to whites who average at $61,000.
    It obviously must be something to do with the kind of immigrants the US allows in. I read somewhere that a disproportionate number of Indian people in the US were Brahmins. And that even the US Muslim population is much more integrated and upwardly mobile to their equivalents in Europe.

    I know that Kenan would much prefer an “open borders” immigration policy around the whole world, but until I see it properly discussed and all the possible ramifications of it explored fully, I do find it hard to take it too seriously.
    Large scale migrations of people have caused great upheavals throughout the last few centuries.
    They can be successful and work out well enough in the end, but I don’t think you can just be blasé about it.
    Things can and do go wrong. For a whole host of reasons of course, but I think Australia would be warned not to end up in the situation that France finds itself. I think that an actual majority of prisoners in French prisons are from the North African community population.
    Even from within the same country, internal migrations can be destabilising. The outflow of black people from the southern United States to cities in the north and the rest of the country, had huge effects on those cities and ghettos quickly formed.
    Because of racism and terrible housing segregation policies of course …. but many of those newly black neighbourhoods became utterly blighted. It could happen anywhere else in the world if some of the conditions were similar.
    So Australia is being selfish maybe, but also being overly cautious …. because once you get these problems of social disfunction based on race and ethnic origins, you can’t easily fix the problems.
    The issues keep being passed on to following generations.

    For some reason I ended up reading some twitter threads of some BME young people in England.
    I think it’s after one of them organised a “walkout” of a discussion at Bristol university after they deemed it to be racist. The young women who were I think of Somali and Sudanese origin were part of this militant PC campus culture, and from their profile pictures were either hijab wearers, or otherwise went for the Kim Kardashian look.
    Then a young guy got involved in a bit of an argument with some other BME youth. He had previously stated on his twitter that his identity was made up of three parts, and were in this order of importance to him.
    1. Muslim

    Some other non Muslim and non Somali black people had questioned the order he put his loyalties. On his twitter profile picture he looked very street savy, with one of those coats with the big fur lined hoods.

    Maybe it’s because I’m just much older than these young people that I feel a bit alienated from the way they look at the world. “British” didn’t even make it into the young Somali guy’s list of loyalties.
    Even though Britain probably granted his parents asylum in this country.
    Another young woman made the newspapers last week after becoming the student NUS leader.
    She too is a hijab wearer with all the usual student politics (anti-Israel etc). She was found to have had a bit of a teenage “wanting to punish white people” phase. She’d tweeted some silly things years ago. But I think was just passing that off as a bit of a growing up and finding yourself phase in her life.
    Fair enough, I wouldn’t hold it against her, but it does remind me how delicate our peaceful coexistence in diverse communities can be.

  5. With the prospect of a disruptive future due to climate changes, ecological changes and the looming possibility of economic changes, then my feeling is that systemic diversity is an important part of building resilience into our systems.

    This needs to be done both within nations and between nations.

    Within nations, we seem to be experiencing a contestation balance between equal diversity and unequal diversity.

    I think …..

    Equal diversity is more based on liberalism and unequal diversity is more based on conservatism, with the former more based on heterarchy and the latter more based on hierarchy.

    I think…….

    Hierarchy is more based on ancestral rights and how generations have invested labour cultivating, sustaining and protecting green and grey infrastructure for future generations.

    Ancestral rights could be considered Custodian rights.

    Heterarchy is more based on human rights and how present generations are able to occupy land with no discrimination.

    Human rights could be considered Stewardship rights.

    Liberal is more represented by universalism and the idea of humanity being one species with equal rights.

    Conservatism is more represented by particularism and the idea of humanity being many sub-species with unequal rights.

    Universalism is more represented by monogenism and a single human evolutionary tree.

    Particularism is more represented by polygenism and multiple human evolutionary branches.

    Is it the case that…..

    There is a single species of human ape that consists of many sub-species of human ape and that the sub-species can be differentiated by biological, cultural and ideological diversity.

    If we are diverse biological, cultural and ideological sub species, then this explains the existence of both liberal rights and conservative rights. One reflects our unity and the other reflects are diversity.

    Maintaining diversity means sustaining biological, cultural and ideological differences which means both human rights and ancestral rights are needed to maintain systemic resilience.

    This means both equal diversity and unequal diversity are needed in order to allow difference and in order to preserve difference. I think this means building a heterarchy in which hierarchies can be formed.

    Therefore, I think hierarchies exist in order to sustain difference and thereby diversity and thereby systemic resilience.

    With multiple crises on the horizon, then maintaining human diversity and thereby human systemic resilience is key to ensuring human survival.

    If inequalities have to exist then perhaps we can reduce their impact by creating a heterarchical system in which equal diversity is increased by increasing the amount of sub species diversity. This means that there will be more unequal communities but they will be smaller.

    Reducing sub species diversity means less distinct communities and those communities being much larger, as we have now. Fewer larger unequal communities I think gives me the feeling of more structural inequality whereas more smaller communities might enable humans to better live in communities where they don’t so much feel that a hierarchy exists.

    So I suppose this means a world in which regional blocs like Europe, China and the US are composed of more autonomous nations and regions. And a world in which nations and regions are stratified into as many diverse unequal communities that we can create.

    A final musing on ancestral rights, our own past generations reveals where our sub-species ancestors created and protected our future sustainability.

    If a global acknowledgement of human rights gives us the equal right to live and let live diversity, with our diversity being sustained by our inequalities, and our inequalities being best experienced as more smaller communities, and if a global acknowledgement of ancestral rights gives us the unequal right to live where our ancestors had toiled and laboured for our survival.

    Then we might be able to respect difference and not fight over it all of the time.

    Both equal diversity and unequal diversity must be respected if we want to be a resilient and sustainable species. The difficulty is in finding the right balance between the two within diverse communities.

    I think this can only be organised using democracy but I might be wrong!

  6. colinhutton

    Did you ask the miserable cabbie why he didn’t simply return to India?

    (BTW: Anecdote is not evidence)

    • Did you ask the miserable cabbie why he didn’t simply return to India?

      ‘Why don’t you go back to where you came from?’ Yeah, a good response to someone facing discrimination

      (BTW: Anecdote is not evidence)

      Thanks for letting me know.

      (BTW: Picking up the one anecdote in the article, used to introduce the theme, and ignoring all the data and evidence presented, sure tells us about your attitude to evidence and anecdote.)

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