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Migration: Balancing the needs of capital, workers and nations

Policymakers need to develop responsive and fair migration frameworks that address and balance the needs of capital, workers and the nation.

Photo: Flickr/ILO in Asia and the Pacific
Photo: Flickr/ILO in Asia and the Pacific
Published 19 Jun 2017 

This is the fifth post in a series that follows an Expert Workshop in Digitisation, Skills and Migration hosted by the Lowy Institute earlier this month in collaboration with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Here is part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.

As the daughter of an immigrant, I know, firsthand the transformative powers of labour migration.  

Labour migration, that is moving to another country for the purpose of work, is a well-established route to citizenship and an established strategy of developed host nations like Australia, US, UK, Canada and New Zealand to attract global talent.

Traditionally, in Australia the rhetoric around labour migration has been far more positive than that around refugees. In a speech in 2014 to the Australian Press Club, Scott Morrison who was the then Minister for Immigration, talked about 457 visa holders as the right kind of migrants, who ‘support themselves from the day they arrive’.

Internationally, global institutions like the World Bank push labour migration as a ‘triple win’: transformative for the individual workers involved; helpful to employers; and lifting the economic growth of host nations.

Yet, increasingly, we see public division on labour migration. The public is no longer buying into the pro-labour migration rhetoric of international economic institutions. There is increasing uncertainty that globalisation delivers all that it promises, and also concern that free trade and the increased movement of people around the globe is anything more than a smokescreen to help big business, not ordinary people.

The Brexit vote and the election of President Trump with his promise ‘to make America great again’ by returning jobs to Americans, demonstrated how these sentiments are reflected in popular votes.

And it is not just non-establishment politicians like Hanson or Trump who are tapping into the growth of anti-migration sentiment. In Britain in the month following Brexit, the Conservative Party’s Home Secretary Amber Rudd said foreign workers should not be able to 'take jobs that British people should do,' which is reminiscent of something our own Labor Prime-Minister Julia Gillard famously said in February 2013. In front of an audience in Rooty Hill, one of Australia’s quintessential working class suburbs, Gillard declared ‘457 visa workers should get to the back of the queue with Australians at the front’.

More recently in Australia the Turnbull Government’s decision to abolish the 457 visa, and the Opposition’s response through an ill-fated television advertisement, indicate an increasing willingness to use labour migration policy for political gain in response to (and perhaps to ignite) growing community concern and fear.

Even if we agree with the notion that Australians should get the first go at job vacancies in Australia, the rhetoric underpinning the current political debate should worry us. It implies that foreign workers are stealing jobs; that they are to blame for local unemployment; that they are underhand and knowingly trying to make things worse for the rest of us.

The truth is somewhat more nuanced. It is usually poor government regulation that results in systems and processes that allow labour migration to be managed to meet the needs of big business and employers. Governments choose to manage it in this way, using temporary migrant workers as cogs in the wheels of global capitalism, without real regard for whether the migrant workers themselves really benefit or whether local jobs are safeguarded. The fault usually lies at the door of poor government regulation and choices, not individual migrant workers who are mostly just doing what the rest of us are doing – trying to make their lives better.

Together with my colleague at the University of Adelaide, Professor Rosemary Owens, I have published a new book examining temporary labour migration in the global era. This work exposes the tendency of migration policy and regulation in the global era to privilege the interests of capital. We argue that, to a large extent, the role and purpose of temporary labour migration has become one of unlocking and maximising the entrepreneurial potential and profit-maximising capabilities of capital. Global economic integration has made this possible by transforming temporary labour migration so that it can occur en masse, not only through targeted programmes but also - and especially through economic zones permitting the free movement of people. This can be clearly seen in the approach to regulating the global trade in services.

The deference to the needs of global capital that is inherent in the design of most contemporary temporary labour migration programs is derivative of a seemingly unquestioned economic philosophy that temporary labour migration programmes need to be less regulated by government and driven instead by the needs of business, with market responsiveness, timeliness and flexibility as the key indicators of success.

Acknowledging capital as a primary beneficiary of temporary labour migration is not to deny its transformative potential for migrant workers. Temporary labour migration is now, more so than ever before, deeply aspirational, as migrant workers seek to take advantage of increased remuneration and job opportunities available abroad. However, the desire of many to improve their life chances through temporary labour migration has encouraged the increasing commercialisation of migration, which has opened up new global possibilities for capital, via its myriad entrepreneurial endeavours, to exploit.

Contemporary labour migration, with its emblematic features of worker precariousness and temporary nature, has proven the perfect fodder for capital’s interests, and the law regulating work has struggled to respond. Whilst international law has tended to focus on the principle of equal treatment to address the problems arising from migrant workers’ precarious status in the labour market, our book raises fresh concerns about the realisation of this principle in practice. A recurring theme is not only the failure to deliver to temporary migrant workers the same wages and conditions as that of their counterparts in the local workforce, but also the use of migrant labour sometimes to the exclusion of local labour in the poorest paid and least well-regulated sectors of the labour market.

This is not to diminish the importance of labour migration and the myriad economic benefits that it produces. There is a clear need, however, for policymakers to develop responsive and fair migration frameworks which address and balance the needs of capital, workers and the nation.

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