The low income migrant tide.

Author:Birrell, Bob

First release 2006 census data allow an examination of the income levels of recently arrived migrants. Their numbers jumped in the 2001 to 2006 period. This article focuses on men aged 25 to 45 as these provide the best approximate principal applicants visaed under the skilled migration program. Men in this age group who came from main-English-speaking countries (MESC) reported incomes consistent with employment in professional, managerial and trade positions. However, the majority of skilled migrants were drawn from non-English-speaking countries (NESC). Their reported incomes were well below those of their MESC counterparts. It appears that only a minority were able to find employment at the professional, managerial or trade level by the August 2006 Census date. This is despite the fact that most NESC males settled in Sydney and Melbourne.


The size of the permanent resident migration program has doubled since the year 2000. The Coalition Government has turned on the immigration tap in the hope that additional skilled migrants will fill some of the skilled labour shortages opening with the economic boom.

By the year 2005-06 the number of settlers arriving in Australia who stated that their occupation was in the managerial, professional, associate professional or trade fields reached 48,865. In addition there were another 15,354 former overseas students who obtained permanent residence from within Australia in 2005-06. (1) Nearly 90 per cent of these overseas students were professionals, mainly in the accounting and information technology fields.

Most of these flows (settler arrivals and former students) were drawn from the various streams of the skilled migration program. That is, they were selected and visaed under a program deliberately targeted to bring in skilled workers relevant to the needs of Australian employers.

It is now well known that some of those selected under the skilled migration program have found difficulty gaining professional level positions despite the strong demand for such workers. The Coalition Government has acknowledged this, and on 1 September 2007 implemented a set of reforms to the selection system. The most important was an increase in the minimum standard of English, which is to apply to all of the visa subclasses within the General Skilled Migration program (under which the great majority of skilled migrants are selected). For those selected under the points-tested Skilled Independent and Skilled Australian Sponsored visa subclasses, there is now also a greater emphasis in the selection grid on the possession of English skills above the new minimum standard.

The decision to reform the skilled migration program selection standards was based largely on anecdotal reports from employers that many recently arrived migrants (including former overseas students who had just completed their professional qualifications at Australian universities) lacked the communication skills necessary for professional level appointments. Most of the former students in question came from East and South-East Asia. For a significant minority, English language test results conducted in the course of their applications for migration since mid-2004 confirmed these anecdotal reports. (2)

Nevertheless, this is contested terrain. Employers continue to call for ever larger migration intakes and some commentators continue to write as though the program is working as intended--that is filling gaps in Australia's skilled workforce. The Coalition Government has responded to this pressure via successive increases in the skilled migrant intake. In 2001-02 there were 53,520 visas issued under the skilled programs for primary and accompanying secondary applicants. These numbers rose to 71,240 in 2003-04, 97,340 in 2005-06 and a similar number in 2006-07. For the year 2007-08 there is to be a further increase in the skilled program to 105,000.

The availability of first release items from the 2006 census provide a preliminary opportunity to assess the outcomes of the skilled migration intake since 2001. It is preliminary in the sense that data on field of qualification, occupation and employment status will not be available until late 2007. However, first release data by place of enumeration on the income of migrants by country of birth, time of arrival and place of residence in Australia as of the August 2006 census are available. These data form the basis of this article, which focuses on persons who arrived in Australia over the period 2001 to August 2006. If these migrants report incomes consistent with managerial, professional and trade positions then this is a good indication that they are meeting the underlying objective of the government.

We acknowledge that this measure is a blunt instrument for the purpose intended and that conclusions must be tentative at this stage. The census does not provide information on the visa category of recently arrived migrants. Thus the information used in this article cannot target the migrants entering under the skilled migration program. In order to minimise this deficiency, the study focuses on the situation of male migrants aged 25 to 44 who arrived in Australia between 2001 and August 2006. These migrants offer the closest fit to principal applicants entering Australia under the skilled migration program.

The restriction to men aged 25 to 44 means that we have excluded older persons who would have entered Australia as parents over the 2001 to August 2006 period and young people under the age of 25 who may be in Australia as overseas...

To continue reading