There’s a lot of noise from employers at the moment about not being able to find workers. Even with millions of workers returning to the labour force after falling out of work during the pandemic, employers – apparently – simply cannot find anyone to fill vacancies. In response, the Morrison Government has announced this week that the international border will be reopened to fully vaccinated temporary visa workers from the start of next month. But this proposed solution tells you more about the true nature of the problem.
We do not have a labour shortage, but a wages and secure jobs shortage. Instead of addressing insecure work the Government has chosen to slump back into systemic exploitation of temporary visa workers which has become a business model for entire sectors of the economy.
There are over 700,000 unemployed and 1.3 million underemployed Australians, according to the most recent ABS statistics. Take into account a further million Australians who are keen to work but not actively looking right now (often out of frustration and disenchantment), and there are currently 3 million underutilised workers in this country. In regional areas youth unemployment is regularly greater than 10 per cent.
Meanwhile, the number of Australians working multiple jobs to make ends meet is at the highest it’s been since the ABS started recording multiple job holding in 1994. We know that workers who hold multiple jobs earn less in total than those with a single full-time role. Any of these workers would jump at the chance to take a decent, secure job.
Closed international borders have meant the stream of visa workers coming to Australia has been cut off. Opening the borders as soon as possible will appease the Morrison Government’s backers in big business – they will be cheering. It gives employers back the large pool of more easily exploited visa workers that – if history is any guide – will suffer underpayment, abuse and substandard working conditions.
They have the least job security of any workers in Australia. Their visas are often tied to their place of employment; meaning the implications of speaking out against poor conditions are not confined to losing their job, but can include deportation, creating a massive power imbalance between employers and workers.
The visa system which is re-starting is not about filling genuine skill or labour gaps, it is about allowing bad businesses to exploit visa workers and avoid providing reasonable, or even legal, minimum wages and conditions. When these employers say we cannot find workers what they mean is they are not prepared to change their business model and raise wages.
When Scott Morrison talks about “getting Governments out of people’s lives”, he means letting big business do whatever they want and not lifting a finger to support working people. He could act on these issues but chooses not to and will be nowhere to be seen as the exploitation of visa workers becomes business as usual.
They could have also invested in our local skills systems to support workers and businesses, but they’ve done the opposite. In 2012, 377,000 Australians started an apprenticeship yet in 2020 that number had collapsed to just 133,500 thanks to drastic funding cuts.
Meanwhile, stagnant wages trudge into their ninth year. The Reserve Bank of Australia’s target of 3 per cent wage growth has fallen short – sitting at only 2.2 per cent so far for 2021. That’s lower than the rate of inflation – so pay packets aren’t even keeping up with the cost of living. Again the Prime Minister could act on this by showing some leadership and giving his own workers – the Commonwealth public sector a pay rise with a 3 in front of it – as the Reserve Bank Governor urges – but he chooses not to.
Low wage growth, and a lack of job security moving forward out of the COVID crisis is not going to help Australia recover quicker. This Government needs to stop prioritising the needs of big business – letting them do as they please, like shamelessly rorting JobKeeper – and start looking out for working Australians who are struggling to make ends meet.
Emerging from this chapter of Australia’s history, we need urgent action from the Federal Government to finally fix the disgraceful fact that as we have seen during the pandemic – 1 in 3 workers do not even have sick leave. Letting employers have a free for all with temporary visa workers will only harm them and the wages and security of local workers.
This article was first published in The Age