The Morrison government faces calls from a Coalition-dominated committee to reserve seats on flights and rooms in hotel quarantine for skilled migrants, as part of a suite of changes to make it easier for businesses to hire overseas workers.
The proposal was released as the latest labour force figures published on Thursday showed Australia’s unemployment rate dropped from 6.3% to 5.8% in February. However, businesses are bracing for the end of the jobkeeper wage subsidy at the end of this month.
Scott Morrison promoted the jobs figures as proof of a “great Australian comeback” from the pandemic lows and declared that jobkeeper “must come to an end”.
It was also revealed on Thursday that about 7,500 Qantas employees would receive $500 a week in direct income support from the federal government as part of the $1.2bn aviation industry support package announced last week.
The new proposal to “streamline” rules for businesses seeking workers from overseas was put forward by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, where government members hold a majority.
The committee – which was asked to review Australia’s Skilled Migration Program – said Australia faced “significant skills shortages” as a result of Covid-19 border closures and the loss of 500,000 temporary visa holders who have left the country.
Perhaps most controversially, given that about 40,000 Australians are still trying to return home amid tight restrictions on international arrivals, the committee, chaired by the Liberal MP Julian Leeser, recommended “the government reserve places on flights and in quarantine for skilled migrants”.
“The committee heard substantial evidence that while employers would prefer to employ Australians because of the costs, time and red tape involved in bringing skilled migrants from overseas, many businesses are facing significant skills shortages, preventing them recovering from the pandemic and growing their businesses,” the committee report said.
The committee proposed that some businesses be granted a relaxation of the requirements to try to find local workers first, a process known as “labour market testing”.
It said the Department of Home Affairs should change the rules to be “less prescriptive about what constitutes labour market testing” and to only require medium and large businesses to conduct the procedure.
The committee also urged the government to remove the requirement for employers to advertise any occupations on critical skills lists.
However, under the proposal, labour market testing would be required for businesses headquartered outside Australia or businesses owned by someone who is not an Australian citizen.
The push triggered an outcry from Labor members of the committee, who accused the government of launching an “outrageous, ill-conceived and appallingly timed” bid to undermine the ability of Australians to get jobs.
The dissenting report from Labor members said the recommendations “were made after a rushed inquiry without hearing adequate evidence and all points of view” amid a “hangover from the deepest recession for many decades continues”.
Labor said reserving special seats on flights and places in quarantine for skilled migrants would be “abandoning over 40,000 stranded Australians”.
“You couldn’t make this stuff up,” Labor’s dissenting report said.
“It would make sense if the report was released on April 1, but it’s not. Government MPs seriously think this is good policy. Shame on them for selling out Australian workers and those looking for a job.”
The government has repeatedly said that returning Australians are the priority.
The committee has also urged the government to dump the requirement for businesses who bring in workers from abroad to contribute to an Australian skills training fund, at least until the pandemic is over.
The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show unemployment decreased to 5.8% in February, down from 6.3% the previous month.
The ABS pointed out that this rate was still 0.8 points higher than a year ago, and that the underemployment rate also increased to 8.5% in February.
Morrison cited the drop in unemployment as proof that “our plan is working” and maintained that the jobkeeper wage subsidy must come to an end this month.
“It has done its job. The job is now taken up by the many other measures that the government has put in place,” Morrison said.
Morrison said he “would rather have profitable companies than non-profitable companies” when asked about new analysis showing 34 of Australia’s largest companies claimed jobkeeper in the second half of 2020, despite actually improving their earnings on pre-pandemic levels.
Labor’s employment spokesperson, Richard Marles, said while the opposition welcomed the drop in the jobless rate, Australia was “still no closer to knowing what the plan is come the end of next week for those businesses and the workers who rely on jobkeeper”.
Marles said there was “growing anxiety” about the end of jobkeeper, as entire sectors “still don’t know how they will survive”.
The federal government has stressed that the aviation industry support package should not be seen as an extension of the jobkeeper payment.
About 7,500 Qantas employees are set to receive $500 a week in direct income support as part of the new package.
Andrew David, chief executive of Qantas domestic and international, confirmed the figure to staff at a town hall meeting in Sydney on Thursday.
The allowance will be paid to about 8,500 international travel staff, 7,500 from Qantas and up to 1,100 from Virgin, until the end of October.
The Transport Workers Union (TWU) national secretary Michael Kaine said it was disappointing that the detail about direct income support had not come from government but was being “drip-fed by the main beneficiary, Qantas”.
“We welcome wage supports for aviation workers who through no fault of their own cannot return to their jobs because of pandemic restrictions,” Kaine said.
“But it is a disgrace that this wage support will help some workers while leaving others unable to pay their bills and support their families. This will cause a further exodus of workers with skills and experience from the industry and hamper the recovery for air travel.”
Kaine said that the domestic airline staff at Qantas, Virgin, and aviation service operators also deserved ongoing wage support.