27 October 2011

Skilled migration - have we got it the wrong way around?

Reading this opinion piece in the Drum reminded me of an old heretical idea I have had for some time.

It is one of the articles of faith of immigration policy in Australia that what we need is more skilled migrants. That's why my idea might be considered a heresy.

To a classical economist, skilled labour is a commodity, produced at considerable expense and much sought after in the economy.

Imagine if Australian business could import steel for free. All you would have to do would be to go down to the docks and take delivery. That would be fantastic for industries like construction, automobile manufacture, etc. It would put the Australian steel industry out of business, of course, but the net economic benefit would probably be positive.

Free steel is a fantasy, but free skilled labour is not. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to train an engineer, accountant, IT professional, doctor, nurse, etc. But our immigration program delivers planeloads of fully trained (and fully paid for) professionals every day. The benefits to the Australian economy are obvious. Of course, like the steel industry in the earlier example, the production of skilled labour in Australia inevitably comes off the worse for the competition.

The trouble is, economists may be able to see skilled labour simply as a commodity, but the rest of us realise that, unlike steel, skills come with people attached. Not producing skilled labour in Australia translates in real terms into not training Australians. Why spend the money when you can get the product for free?

The OECD Education at a Glance report for 2011 shows that Australia spends well below the average of developed economies on education. We are simply importing it for free.

The old paradigm worked (and worked well, in my heretical view) on the basis that immigrants came in at the bottom of the socio-economic heap and pushed everyone else up. The new paradigm brings the migrants in at or near the top. What effect does that have on everyone below? It may be still too early to tell.

But the economy doesn't just need skilled workers. Engineers don't like to wash dishes, but someone has to. If bringing in the free engineers from overseas means we don't train them here, then I suppose our own kids can take the unskilled jobs. Sounds like a good way to create some social unrest, if you ask me.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of our close neighbours in Indonesia, the Philippines and the Pacific queue up for unskilled or semi-skilled work in other countries, some of it legal, some not. Even when it's legal, conditions are often just as bad as when it's illegal.

It's not hard to imagine that a poor woman in the Philippines with a family to support would rather work as a maid or housekeeper in Australia than in Saudi Arabia. But we couldn't allow that, could we? It would offend our egalitarian sensibilities, wouldn't it? Better to let them live in poverty at home or be sexually abused abroad. I'm sure they understand that we're doing it for their own good.

Right now, legions of foreigners work in Australia illegally. The fact that they are illegal means that they are open to exploitation. If they had visas to work as unskilled or semi-skilled labour in domestic, construction, hospitality and manufacturing jobs their rights could be protected. Their taxes could even help pay for training Aussie kids, including their own, to be the engineers of the future.

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