Unions and employers have backed the case to boost migration from 160,000 to 200,000 places a year in a crucial step to a wider deal on jobs after all sides accepted the need for urgent changes to fix chronic labour shortages.
The growing consensus on migration is an early sign of common ground at the federal government’s Jobs and Skills Summit and clears the ground for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to increase the permanent intake in the October 25 budget.
But industry chiefs and union leaders are at odds over visa conditions and the rates of pay for skilled foreign workers, with employers warning they cannot afford the $90,000 annual salary the unions want to see as the minimum benchmark for those who enter the country.
Overseas migration contributed to growth in the fourth quarter for the first time since the pandemic, with 29,100 net new arrivals.Credit:Bloomberg
Albanese spoke to state and territory leaders on Wednesday about labour shortages and the migrant intake in a national cabinet meeting that also discussed federal funding for skills and training, including TAFE colleges run by the states.
“Clearly there’s a need to look at migration issues and they’ll be looked at over the next couple of days,” he said.
“The federal government sets the migration numbers and the federal government will continue to set the migration numbers but I’m very pleased at the level of co-operation which we’re seeing in the lead-up to the Jobs and Skills Summit.”
The summit will open on Thursday morning with ACTU secretary Sally McManus and Business Council of Australia chief Jennifer Westacott endorsing the need for more flexibility in workplace agreements so companies can lift productivity and increase wages.
Business peaks and union heads met with Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke throughout Wednesday.
All sides are working on a common position in the hope it could be made public by the government at the end of the summit on Friday, including an agreement on the need for reform including a more workable enterprise bargaining system.
McManus and Westacott issued a joint statement on Wednesday night saying the migration program was “critical” to Australia but needed to be managed well, while they also argued for an increase in paid parental leave to 26 weeks and reform to enterprise bargaining.
There is no deal, however, on the ACTU’s call for enterprise bargaining agreements to be negotiated across multiple employers in big industries such as childcare, aged care and hospitality because the Australian Industry Group and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry fear it would lead to industry-wide strikes.
Westacott said on the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday that the Business Council of Australia wanted an increase in permanent migration to “around 200,000 to 220,000” and McManus responded by saying the ACTU could accept “around the same figure” but wanted it to be a little lower.
The two sides have come closer to a consensus on the total intake in the past few days, with ACTU president Michele O’Neil saying on Wednesday the peak union group believed there was agreement on permanent migration.
As part of any increase in the cap, however, the ACTU wants to see the abolition of visa conditions that tie workers to a single employer, replacing single-employer sponsorships with industry-wide arrangements to address legitimate skills shortages, and lifting the minimum salary for temporary skilled workers.
Industry groups are seeking a cut in the $7,200 fee for the Temporary Skill Shortage visa, known as the subclass 482 visa, on the grounds it is wrong for them to have to pay the fee even when government officials reject the application.
The Ai Group has proposed a “clawback” in the fee if the amount is not reduced. Another proposal is for the 482 visa to be issued for four years rather than two so workers and employers have more certainty.
A bigger dispute is emerging over the minimum salary an employer must pay when sponsoring a worker from overseas on the 482 visa, known as the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold (TSMIT) and currently set at $53,900.
Industry executives have told the government that the union demand for a $90,000 minimum would drive employers out of business and hurt regional Australia in particular.
With employers such as abattoirs relying on migrants to fill essential jobs, the business groups are warning that a high benchmark would force up food prices for Australians.
Business Council chief Jennifer Westacott, left, and ACTU secretary Sally McManus, right, have broadly agreed on the expansion of Australia’s migration program, but business and unions differ on the conditions and wages of skilled migration visas. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer/Paul Jeffers
“The ceiling for the annual permanent program, which is announced each year in the federal budget, should be raised from a ceiling of 160,000 to a floor of 200,000 with two-thirds of those visas allocated to skilled migrants,” said Ai Group chief Innes Willox.
“There appears to be consensus building around this target and approach.”
ACCI chief Andrew McKellar said the biggest hurdles for employers were long processing times and excessive costs when seeking to bring in foreign workers.
“We appear to be reaching consensus on boosting Australia’s permanent skilled migration intake to more ambitious levels,” he said.
Government MPs said one way to expand the pool of workers was to speed up the processing of partner visas for people marrying Australians, many of whom wait years for their visas.
Julian Hill and Mike Freelander, who both represent areas with significant migrant populations, said it was important not to lose sight of the large backlogs in processing family and partner visas for people already here and refugee applications.
Hill said 300,000 people were in the country on bridging visas, some of whom would be able to work but are denied permission.
“We also must ensure that speeding up the processing of skilled visas does not come at the expense of partner and humanitarian visas,” he said.
Albanese praised employers in a speech to the BCA on Wednesday night and made it clear to corporate chiefs that he wanted to end the “culture of division” so there could be a broad agreement at the summit.
“I recognise business has been providing leadership and showing initiative on greater economic equality and security for women, sustainability and climate action, and empowering more Australians with a disability to participate in work,” he told the BCA’s annual dinner.
“But it’s always going to be harder and slower and less rewarding when you’re going it alone, when you’re striving for progress in spite of government.
“Government shouldn’t stand as a barrier, government should serve as a
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