Immigration is key to lifting Australia’s economy out of the red. But is enough being done to encourage people to move to Australia during COVID-19?
Occupations have been removed from the skilled occupation lists, the number of onshore applicants sitting on bridging visas without approvals is too high, and our aged care and agricultural sectors are crying out for workers.
Of course, there is an argument against migration in these times.
Australia is facing our largest recession after 26 years of consecutive growth, and 1 million Australians are unemployed.
So why would you allow overseas workers to come and take jobs that are already so scarce?
For one, given that we are staring down the barrel of a generation’s worth of debt, immigration is a way to drive economic recovery through populating the country within a short period of time. Immigrants pay taxes and taxes create income.
Then there is the demographic cliff that we are headed towards, with an ageing population and not enough working-age people to sustain their care. Aged care and agriculture both require skilled and semi-skilled workers.
Workers in these sectors have been deemed essential during COVID-19. International students were able to work double the usual hours permitted and granted special visas to continue working to support these industries. Working holiday visa makers were allowed to extend their usual six-month limitation to work with one employer.
These are important measures to ensure the viability of these industries, but we may need to do more.
The horticulture industry produces 93% of the total volume of food consumed in Australia and supports an agricultural export market valued at $2.1 billion per annum. Agriculture is reliant upon temporary migrants to gets its produce to overseas markets, a generally itinerant workforce made up of backpackers, seasonal workers from the Pacific region, and those sponsored under a labour agreement. Without them, the industry will come to a standstill.
Unless urban Australians are prepared to up sticks and relocate to the regional areas, there is no other solution to provide the much-needed food security that is all so important during a pandemic.
When it comes to aged care, nursing homes are currently the top sources of COVID-19, and sadly, the highest percentage of deaths take place within their walls.
There are simply not enough trained medical staff within these institutions to provide the level of care required, and statistics indicate that this is only going to get worse. Immigration is one way to solve this and provide a willing workforce of qualified nurses.
It is worth noting that changes to the skilled occupation lists prior to the pandemic were set to introduce new occupations for carers. This may still take place once the October 2020 budget is fully set.
Above all, the migrants who provide these incredibly important services also bring a richness of culture and diversity to Australia that creates vibrant communities, goodwill and bilateral relations between our country and the rest of the world. And that is not to be sneezed at in the midst of rebuilding an entire economy.
So what can be done to get our immigration numbers up, despite the ongoing pandemic?
Any changes to the immigration program have to be well thought through. If we reduce the numbers allowed in by too many, it will have dramatic long-term effects not only on agriculture and aged care, but on our ability to attract ‘the brightest and the best’. Innovation and new technologies are essential to any country to get to the other side of this pandemic.
The priority visa pathway launched by the federal government late last year — The Global Talent Independent Program — has not proven successful, with approximately 350 places taken up out of a potential 5,000 in the last six months.
Instead, a focus on employer sponsorship in key essential industries may well be one of the answers.
It would be a better means to immediately resolve these shortages rather than the points test under the Skilled Migration Program, that brings in skilled workers who do not necessarily move straight into their roles and pay taxes.
It is worth bearing in mind that there is already a pool of highly skilled international students and temporary migrants in Australia.
And lastly, those currently waiting offshore for temporary sponsored visas need to be given the green light to enter the country, albeit via an approved quarantine model.