By Peter Boyle
Minister for employment, education and training John Dawkins didn't succeed in his effort to push a cut in immigration through the ALP national conference in Hobart, but the issue is being taken up by the media and others.
Dawkins claimed that migrants were adding to long-term unemployment, worsening the current account deficit and adding to environmental problems. Since the Labor conference, Monash University sociologist Dr Bob Birrell and Senator Peter Walsh have supported his call. The Democrats have called for a 5000 cut to immigration in the skills category.
The Hawke cabinet had already slashed the 1991-92 intake by 12,500 in April. This followed two annual reductions of more than 10% each.
Birrell cited Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that unemployment was highest among non-English-speaking migrants (12% in February compared with 9.5% for all residents). About half of the unemployed NES migrants who had arrived between 1986 and 1989 had not been able to find work in the last two years. He concluded that the government should cut the family reunion and unskilled migrant intake.
The ABS figures certainly prove that NES migrants are major victims of the recession — especially because the manufacturing and construction industries have suffered the most job losses. In the 12 months to May, 79,000 jobs were shed in the former and 30,000 in the latter, according to the ABS.
But further punishing victims of a recession that was not their making is totally unjust and does nothing to address the real problems.
The last major government inquiry into immigration, the 1988 FitzGerald Report, recommended for economic reasons that immigration intake should not be adjusted downwards during recessions. A study by Professor Glen Withers of La Trobe University found that migrants create as least as many jobs as they take up, even during recessions. With Australian business looking to a recovery in the housing sector to lead the economy out of a recession, it is not surprising that there is little support for a major cut in immigration from that sector.
Australia's post-1945 immigration program used migrant labour to create massive profits for business. Migrants have done and still do many of the hardest and dirtiest jobs. Yet during every recession, to some degree or another, migrants have been singled
out for blame.
Blaming immigration is a way of diverting public attention from a real discussion about economic problems or environmental degradation. Thus cutting immigration is presented as a "solution" to unemployment — caused by the collapse of the 1980s speculative boom — instead of measures to prevent the speculators from doing the same again.
The blame for job losses in the manufacturing sector, caused by the ruthless restructuring demanded by the economic "rationalists" in the government and opposition alike, is put on NES migrants (who lose many of the jobs as well!).
Overcrowded, ill-planned and under-serviced cities are the result of planning and development carried out primarily in the interests of quick profits. Ecology and social considerations come last if they are not totally ignored.
But instead of demanding action to address these issues, the ACTU has been pressuring the government to cut immigration.
Before the recession hit, Michael Quinlan and Constance Lever-Tracy published a study into Australian labour attitudes to immigration which drew the brave conclusion the movement had finally buried its historic hostility to migrant (especially non-European) labour. They cited the experience of working and living in increasingly urban environments, changes in Australia's international economic relations, growing isolation of racist views and union strength and solidarity.
However, they warned that a move towards labour market deregulation (eg the destruction of awards and enterprise bargaining) demanded by the Liberal-National coalition and "new right" forces could shatter this process and turn worker against worker. What they did not count on was the ACTU and Labor governments moving down this track.
Decades of the white Australia policy have created a workforce still segmented along ethnic lines. There is a preponderance of workers from NES backgrounds in the lowest paid jobs.
In this situation, the increasing competition between workers that will follow labour market deregulation is likely to encourage racism. Predominantly white trade union officials are already trading off the working conditions and pay rates of workforces predominantly made up of migrant workers so as to fulfil the obligations of the ALP-ACTU Accord.