Over the past years Australia’s Federal Government has been squarely focussing on enticing skilled labour into Australia and it has been discounting a very large part of the workforce, one that Covid has inadvertently shone a light upon, namely semi-skilled labour.
Looking back to the late 1950s and early 1960s this was exactly the type of labour that was being welcomed with open arms by the government and migrants flooded into the country. Some were older migrants who had come during the 1960s when the gates were open wide, these older migrants are now retiring or have retired. The ‘Baby Boomer’ generation who are retiring in droves and there is a skills shortage shock about to hit. Another thing to add is the ever-growing need for aged care workers as these Baby Boomers reach their aged care years. The oldest of this generation is already 75 years old.
Then the tap was turned off and much of the labour for low-skilled employment was done by international students, working holiday visa holders, and low skilled migrants who had come in under a variety of visa types under variety of labour agreements. However, the issues of the need for low skilled labour is far from solved.
Shortages in tourism and hospitality, aged and disability care, forestry and fisheries, agriculture and food processing have reached critical levels during the closing of the borders since March 2020. Covid has underscored how much we rely on semi-skilled workers in these areas. In attempt to deal with these critical shortages, the Federal Government made unprecedented changes into the migration policy, introducing unlimitted work hours for student visa holders and Pandemic Event visas for overseas nationals engaged in critical industries. Then the needs in the health care sector for semi-skilled labour also came to the surface.
If this was just the case in Australia then it may not be such an issue, but similar trends are emerging overseas as the ratio of workers to dependants falls in Europe, Japan, Korea, Singapore and China. So, on the horizon lies a hefty problem when all these countries compete for semi-skilled labour.
As an example, Japan has had quite tight borders when it comes to allowing permanent migration from semi-skilled workers. However, it is now allowing workers in occupations like aged care and agriculture to apply for permanent residency.
Australia has started to recognise the shift and has announced changes to visas which include offering migrants from the UK and the ASEAN region who want to work in agriculture, fisheries and forestry a pathway to permanent residency. And the Joint Standing Committee on Migration has recommended that temporary skilled workers on subclass 482 visas also be offered a pathway to permanent residency. We are yet to see the practical implementation of these proposed solutions in effective changes to the current migration programs.
Various visa types exist for both skilled and semi-skilled labour in Australia. Companies or sectors that are quick to recognise the problems on the horizon and act swiftly to meet their emerging labour needs will come out on top, those who wait until the need is urgent may find it difficult to find let alone attract workers to fill their needs.