Ever since the federal government was forced to close Australia’s borders in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, the capitalist class have been demanding that migration return to pre-pandemic levels. This was a major topic of discussion at the recent Jobs and Skills Summit at which Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil announced that the permanent migration cap will increase from 160,000 to 195,000 for this financial year.
O’Neil’s announcement received widespread support from corporate Australia. As she put it at the summit, “There is nothing in this room with universal support, but an area where almost everyone agrees is that we need to lift the permanent migration numbers for this year”. Immigration Minister Andrew Giles also announced at the summit that Home Affairs would get a $36 million funding boost to deal with the significant backlog of visa applications.
Socialists of course support the free movement of people, reject discrimination against migrants and ultimately want a world without borders or nationalism. However, it is important to understand that the current push for an increase in migration by both the Albanese government and corporate Australia is not motivated by any commitment to breaking down national chauvinism, a desire for greater diversity, support for the rights of migrant workers or humanitarianism. Instead, it is about what is in the interests of big business.
The bosses, from corporate giants to local cafes, have been crying poor for months, claiming that labour shortages have forced them to pay unreasonable wages to keep workers from moving on to other industries or businesses.
The Job Vacancies Survey released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in August revealed that 42.5 percent of accommodation and food services businesses reported having job vacancies as compared to 13.9 percent at the beginning of 2020. Other industries reporting high levels of vacancies were health care and social assistance (33.4 percent), public administration and safety (37.4 percent) and administrative and support services (32.8 percent), all of which are many times higher than before the pandemic.
While restaurants and cafes are a relatively minor part of the Australian economy, shortages among skilled workers are a major problem for the capitalist class. The National Skills Commission Labour Market Update in June reported that it was among the higher skilled occupations that businesses found it the most difficult to recruit employees, 71 percent of employers reporting difficulties.
The growing labour crisis in education and health care, industries that play an essential role in keeping parents at work, is also a problem. The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation Federal Secretary Annie Butler told the ABC in July that there were at least 8,000 nursing and midwifery job vacancies being advertised, double the number of 2021. And the federal government predicts a shortfall of 4,000 high school teachers within the next three years.
The increase in permanent migration numbers is accordingly weighted towards the better paid and more skilled workers that employers are demanding, rather than low-waged workers on temporary visas, let alone refugees fleeing persecution. The skilled migration category is open only to workers who earn a relatively high wage, cutting out most migrants and refugees.
The shift towards an emphasis on permanent migration more than temporary visas is also not about protecting the conditions of workers, born either here or overseas. Instead, it is about providing business with greater certainty and a more stable and reliable labour force. As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese acknowledged in a speech at the summit, “One of the lessons of the pandemic is that we need to have more security and more reliance upon ourselves. And when people were asked to leave and when the borders were shut, that has exacerbated the skills shortages which are there”.
Immigration has long played an essential role in the development of Australian capitalism. From the initial invasion and establishment of a white colonial settler state, to the industrial expansion and mass migration of the postwar years, the movement of both labour and capital to Australia has been vital to the country’s economic development.
In recent decades, the primary driving force of increased migration to advanced economies like Australia has been the need to sustain growth in the labour force in face of stagnant population growth. For a while, falling birth rates could be offset by increased participation of women in the workforce. However, this eventually ran up against its limitations. Current measures to expand access to child care and lower costs are intended to raise women’s participation further, but this is unlikely to close the gaps in the labour market to the extent required. Growth in the labour force therefore had to come from somewhere, and immigration has been the obvious solution.
Ironically, the labour shortage has not meant full employment. At the same time as demand for labour has grown, the era of relative “full employment” has ended. This contradictory phenomenon was bound up with the development of Western capitalism. Increases in productivity and technology allowed the capitalists to shed employment in some sectors, and recessions during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s produced a larger layer of unemployed. Meanwhile, new sectors emerged or expanded demanding labour. While some of the unemployed could transition to these new industries, not all could, and those who remained out of work were disproportionately older or not suitable for retraining. Given this, bringing in young and skilled immigrants whose training costs have been borne by their country of origin made good economic sense.
The conservative John Howard government combined support for quite high levels of immigration, which were increased every year from 1999 onwards, with intense racism towards refugees, Muslims and Aboriginal people. Howard could whip up the right-wing base of the Liberal Party and shape domestic politics in his favour using racism, while also maintaining the levels of immigration necessary for the capitalist class to continue making large profits. This brought with it a shift in immigration towards skilled workers. Sixty-nine percent of visas granted in 2005 were on strictly economic grounds, as opposed to family reunion or humanitarian, compared to 29 percent in 1995.
The outbreak of COVID-19 exacerbated the pre-existing labour market shortages. The drastic drop in migration internationally during the early phase of the pandemic has led to intense international competition for skilled workers. The capitalists want increased migration in order to expand the workforce and undermine the potential power that workers have gained due to labour shortages.
Not everyone in the establishment is on board with this plan. Opposition leader Peter Dutton responded to the announcements at the Jobs and Skills Summit by arguing: “If you’re going to bring in a huge surge in the migration program where people go, already Australians are finding it hard to find rental accommodation, there’s a very tight housing market out there at the moment, and the government will have to provide all of these answers”. Considering the previous Liberal government did nothing about the lack of access to housing throughout its nine years in power, this is baldly hypocritical.
Mainstream conservatives have also spent decades promoting racism and right-wing attitudes regarding borders, migration and nationalism, and so are reluctant to embrace immigration openly in a way that might not be palatable to their base. Indeed, their approach has opened up space for rank-and-file racists, who are not particularly interested in the differences between refugees and skilled migration, to back hardline anti-immigrant politicians like Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. In the recent federal election, Hanson campaigned on a platform of “net-zero migration” to Australia, and then only migrants from “culturally cohesive countries”. If the economic situation in Australia deteriorates over the next period, or there are further pressures on living standards, then it is possible that more anti-migrant voices spruiking racism will come out of the woodwork and gain more confidence, despite this not advocating exactly what the bosses want. In many countries around the world, far-right forces are on the move. Such vile bigotry should of course be opposed.
It is self-defeating for the workers’ movement to support migration controls that counterpose the interests of workers from one country to those of workers from another. Socialists support the relaxing of immigration rules, so that workers and the poor are not prevented from moving around the world because they can’t afford it or are not a source of potential profit for bosses. Migration shouldn’t be informed by what suits the capitalist class, but by what is in the interests of ordinary people and the working class. Many leave their country of birth because they are seeking safety from violence or the impact of unfolding climate crisis, or simply because they want a better standard of living and a more secure life. These are the issues which should be front and centre of discussions around migration, not what will make the bosses richer.
But almost all the current discussion of immigration in Australia is premised on the assumption that it should be organised according to the needs and interests of capital. So the ALP-aligned Australia Institute argues for migration on the basis that it helps economic expansion, while anti-migrant advocates raise the negative consequences for the economy, particularly in periods of recession. Even many on the left who oppose migration cuts and restrictive policies accept this framework. This is often obfuscated with reference to migration being tailored to the “national interest”. But whose interests are we talking about? There is no universal “national interest”; rather there are the competing interests of different class forces.
The starting point for the socialist left instead should be that we oppose the control the capitalists have over the economy, and reject the proposition that the movement of people must be subordinated to the interests of capital. In the long run we a world in which economic development is democratically controlled by the majority and therefore one in which the free movement of peoples can become a reality.
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