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.