Give asylum seekers safe haven to help fix labour shortages

November 10, 2022
Sydney protest for refugee rights on November 6. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Australia’s acute labour shortages are now the second-worst in the Organisation for Economic Development as unemployment hits a 50-year low. Border closures to stem the spread of COVID-19 starved the country of tourists and temporary overseas workers who once filled many jobs.

Nearly half a million jobs are unfilled: there is a shortage of trades and services, businesses are unable to find staff, while remaining staff are working longer hours.

Restoring migration has been touted as the most immediate solution.

The former Coalition government waived visa fees in February to attract working tourists and the Labor government has introduced a new Pacific Engagement Visa to boost permanent migration from the Pacific.

The Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will allow eligible businesses to hire workers for between one to four years from nine Pacific islands and Timor Leste when local workers are unavailable.

Does anything strike you as odd? Let’s just address the massive elephant in the room.

Why doesn’t Labor take this opportunity to boost the supply of workers by providing permanent residency to the 31,000 temporary visa holders who have been living in Australia for at least 10 years? They came seeking asylum, and have been kept in limbo on Temporary Protection Visas (TPV), Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEV) or a Bridging Visa E (BVE).

Many asylum seekers have years of sought-after work experience in aged care, hospitality and construction. While some have been allowed to work, often their visa conditions impose strict limitations on the kinds of work they can do, or its duration.

Worse still, many BVE holders have no right to work at all, or access to social security payments. This group is reliant on charitable organisations for a roof over their head and food on their table.

Labor came to power promising to provide permanent residency to those on temporary visas. More than six months after the election we are yet to see any action.

Refugee advocates are being told “these things take time”. But the budget did nothing to fix the bottle neck in visa processing that has denied asylum seekers any certainty for up to a decade.

A commitment of some funding to speed up visa processing does not appear to apply to those on TPVs.

Even ignoring basic humanitarian concerns — which Labor seems intent on doing — research by academics and activists points to the potential economic benefits of giving permanency and unhindered work rights to those who have lived with poverty and uncertainty for so long.

It tells us that 90% of TPV, SHEV and BVE holders are at “peak earning ages” (under 45) where taxable income is highest. Many have good English language skills after years of working in social services (aged and disability care), hospitality (chefs and kitchen hands) and construction and skilled labouring work (carpenters and joiners, builders and plumbers).

According to the 2016 Census, this group had high rates of participation in the labour force. Indeed, the statistics show that business ownership rates were higher in this group than family and even skilled migrants in that year.

Despite their contribution, not to mention evidence of extraordinary resilience and determination in the face of such discrimination, these TPV holders are not allowed to buy their own homes, invest in their businesses or settle here.

To access tertiary education, they would have to pay the full overseas student fees. They are ineligible to reunite with their families by bringing them here, forcing them to send funds overseas which otherwise would be spent here.

To add insult to injury, Labor allocated $150 million more than the Coalition did to offshore detention over 2022–23. A staggering $1.3 billion will be spent on onshore detention over this period and more than $1 billion a year over the next four years.

Labor junked its election promise to raise the humanitarian intake to 27,000 places a year over four years, in favour of maintaining the Coalition’s intake of 13,750.

Labor has trashed the opportunity to make good. Even while maintaining the bipartisan racist scaremongering approach — boat turn-backs and mandatory detention — it could easily grant permanency to those already living here, as it promised to do.

The Anthony Albanese government could easily draw on the skill-base and knowledge of those refugees who have been able to work and give the right to work to those who have been denied. He could so easily end the torture of more than 30,000 people denied security and separated from their family.

If you agree with Green Left that it’s down to us to insist this happen and now is the time to do it, become a supporter and help build the refugee rights campaign.

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