Regional consultation on Regional Migration Agreements

We last wrote about Regional Migration Agreements (RMA) in July. Since then staff from the Labour Market Branch have been travelling around the country speaking with representatives of regional areas that may be suitable for a RMA. We wanted to get an idea of people’s feelings about the program at a local level. We also organised meetings with representatives from Australian Government agencies, national unions and industry in Canberra and Sydney to brief them on the proposed program and give them the opportunity to provide feedback. 

Broadly speaking, we think there are two labour market environments where RMAs can solve labour shortages. The first is regions experiencing critical short–term labour needs or rapid economic growth where local labour shortages are limiting business activity. The development and ongoing operation of the INPEX Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) project in Darwin is an example of this.

Lady and a kangaroo

The second labor market environment we identified is one where growth is being hampered by short-term inelasticities in labour supply, for example, the strain on industries such as agriculture and manufacturing in the Goldfields-Esperance region of Western Australia, as local workers are attracted to jobs in resources projects in the Pilbara.

With this in mind we travelled to Darwin in the Northern Territory, Broome and Esperance in Western Australia and Gladstone in northern Queensland. Each of these areas is experiencing skills and labour shortages due to labour drain as locals move to nearby construction or resources projects seeking better pay and conditions. What’s left behind are skilled labour shortages that local employers have difficulty filling. In these areas a RMA could be an effective solution to backfill positions and strengthen the local labour market and economy while also encouraging training opportunities and initiatives for locals.

During consultations the main issues we covered were regional eligibility, the skill levels and occupations that will be available, the salary threshold for temporary skilled migrants and the training commitments that will be required.

The strength of the RMA program is its flexibility, which is why we are proposing to steer clear of hard thresholds, such as unemployment or labour force participation rates, to establish regional eligibility for the program. Rather than creating a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model, we propose that eligibility be based on the recommendation and endorsement of the relevant state or territory government. This endorsement will be based on a high level regional scan confirming that labour shortages exist and that attracting and retaining sufficient numbers of Australian workers has not been possible.

Feedback from some stakeholders, such as industry bodies and employers has been very supportive of this flexibility. Others, concerned with preserving job opportunities for Australians, proposed that a RMA be granted only after rigorous analysis to determine that there is a genuine need for overseas workers. This would entail job specific labour market testing and analysis which proves that employers have already made exhaustive attempts to recruit, train and retain local workers.

As mentioned in our previous RMA blog post, one of the major benefits of the RMA program will be that Australian employers will have access to some occupations that are not eligible under the standard program. This reflects a real change in Australia’s skilled migration program from one predominantly targeting highly skilled individuals to creating avenues for semi–skilled migrants. 

For industries such as tourism and agriculture, allowing semi–skilled workers is critical as many occupations within these industries are categorised as semi–skilled and are not eligible under the standard 457 visa program.  

For example, current data from the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism  indicates that in the tourist industry in Broome three of the occupations most in demand now and in the foreseeable future are bar attendants, waiters and café or restaurant managers. Allowing concessions on skill levels may enable tourism employers in Broome to use the program to fill these gaps.

For some stakeholders, especially those representing the tourism and agriculture industries, our proposal to lower the skill level to allow for a broader range of occupations was seen as not going far enough. They called for eligibility for all occupations regardless of skill level if demand and difficulty in employing Australian workers can be evidenced.

In contrast, other stakeholders expressed real concern that lowering the skill threshold would mean that jobs that could and should be done by unskilled or under–skilled Australians would be filled by migrants. Their position is that employers in these regions should be making more effort to recruit and train Australian workers to fill these positions.

We are working hard to finalise the RMA program and plan to release the guidelines in early 2012. Applications from interested regions will be accepted shortly after. In the meantime, let us know what you think. Do you believe RMAs will help to support regional centres and industries? Do you think your region needs a Regional Migration Agreement?

Regional Migration Agreements

The Australian labour market is diverse. Here at Labour Market Branch in Department of Immigration and Citizenship, we often hear feedback that local labour conditions are not comparable to national conditions. This can be particularly acute for regional areas and this is one reason why concessions exist for regional employer visas such as the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS).

It is from this tradition that the Australian Government has announced a new regional initiative, Regional Migration Agreements (RMAs). These agreements will recognise the particular skilled migration needs of regional areas, taking account of unique local particulars. RMAs can be tailor made to bring together the views of employers, local and state governments and unions to cooperate in addressing local labour needs (and please note, RMAs are not a new visa).

Like all our skilled migration programs, RMAs are designed to support economic growth while ensuring local workers remain the first choice for employers. Training initiatives and future planning that focus on the needs of the local regional area will be an integral part of all RMAs. It is important to realise that RMAs are only a temporary solution, designed to supplement labour supply only where there are not enough local workers. As Minister Bowen said regarding another migration agreement for the resource sector, Enterprise Migration Agreements, the ultimate focus must be on local skills and training.

Benefits

The key benefit of RMAs will be the ability to negotiate concessions from standard skilled migration programs (such as the temporary 457 program). For example, some common semi-skilled occupations, which are not available under the 457 program include locomotive driver, mining labourer or plant operator. Under a RMA, these semi-skilled occupations (and many others) could become available for local areas that demonstrate a need in the local labour market that can’t be filled by local workers.

A secondary, but also substantial, benefit will be the efficiencies gained by streamlining the labour agreement process. Currently, labour agreements need to be negotiated with employers and they can be quite complex, requiring individual negotiation with each business. To alleviate this, RMAs will have a two-tiered structure. Negotiation about labour market testing and local conditions will occur up front so each employer does not have to duplicate similar information. The result will be a streamlined agreement for each employer—reducing delays.

Timeline

The department is currently discussing RMAs with other federal government agencies. After this, we hope to engage with a broad audience—regional business groups, local councils, state governments, members of the general public—to hear feedback on the proposal. These discussions will help the department to develop RMAs. Two central requirements for RMAs will be the structure and eligibility.

Structure: The government has already announced that RMAs will be negotiated between the government and representatives of the local area. Individual local employers will then directly sponsor workers under the terms of the RMA.

RMAs are designed to be flexible to suit the particular needs of local areas. The department will be asking about key aspects of RMAs, such as:

  • The sort of training proposals that will be acceptable and the way initiatives are identified.
  • The type of evidence required to demonstrate a need for semi-skilled overseas workers.
  • The responsibility local authorities hold and the duration of an RMA.

There are many questions that require answers before negotiations between local regional areas and the government can occur.

Eligibility: The government has already released the high level focus for RMAs. The agreements will target high growth regional areas where local labour is in short supply.

In consulting further on RMAs, specific eligibility requirements will be established around issues like:

  • The level of growth required to qualify.
  • The type of growth best used as a measure—wage expenditure, general labour market or total economic size.
  • The type of local authorities eligible to sign up to an RMA.

These questions do not necessarily have a right or wrong answer. Different regional areas will have different local conditions, requiring the need for unique approaches across Australia.

We hope to have the questions answered by the end of this year. After that, it is expected that individual RMAs will be negotiated from early 2012. Stay tuned for further information.