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COVID-19 and its impact on Australian migration

It’s fair to say the COVID-19 crisis has seriously impacted the Australian migration industry, with many applicants struggling to have their visa processed. But as the country’s post-pandemic recovery continues, there is renewed hope on the horizon for international workers.

On 20 March, 2020, Australia closed its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents in response to the COVID-19 crisis. From that day on, the departure of all temporary visa holders combined with tight travel restrictions has caused a significant drop in net migration to Australia. As a result, critical skills shortages are being experienced across numerous industries, including those in regional areas.

Industries like farming and agriculture are suffering from a lack of affordable labour typically provided by migrants on working holiday visas. With working holiday-makers from the U.K., Europe, Canada and the U.S. no longer arriving in droves – and no longer here to perform jobs like fruit picking – Australian farmers are forced to either pay unsustainably high wages to local workers, or alternatively consider whether to stop growing certain varieties of fruit altogether.

It’s a similar story for the nation’s education providers including universities, colleges, TAFE and other private institutions. The service of education traditionally represents one of Australia’s major product/service exports, but amidst international border closures the sector has decreased considerably as many overseas students understandably look elsewhere to study.

Australia’s economic rebound

Yet despite the initial projections of doom and gloom, and the challenges that remain, Australia’s response to COVID-19 has proved to be one of the most successful in the world. The country’s high-quality health system has been effective and the economy is rebounding relatively well from those damaging early blows. In February, Australia’s unemployment rate dropped to 5.8 per cent from 6.3 per cent the previous month, according to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

Now more than ever, Australia needs international workers to help the economy rebound from such a challenging period. And there is reason for optimism. Australia’s Migration Program, which aims to achieve a range of economic and social outcomes, has set a ceiling of 160,000 total places available for 2020-21. This includes the Skill stream, which is designed to improve the productivity of the economy and fill the skill shortages in Australia’s labour market, including those in regional Australia. Recently the Joint Standing Committee on Migration – tasked with reviewing the Skilled Migration Program – proposed to “streamline” rules to make it easier for Australian businesses to hire workers from overseas. This could lead to more positive outcomes for skilled migration applicants.

Travel exemptions can also be provided for non-citizens delivering services in sectors critical to Australia’s economic recovery (e.g. financial technology, large scale manufacturing, or film and television production) where no Australian worker is available; or for those with critical skills required to maintain the supply of essential goods and services (e.g. in medical technology, critical infrastructure, telecommunications, engineering and mining, supply chain logistics, and food production).

A change of outlook for a brighter future

So where to now for migration in Australia? For a start, it’s imperative to restore confidence in Australia as a desirable destination for migrant workers. A post-pandemic change of outlook can help fast-track this transition. Thankfully, many doubters are belatedly recognising the value of international workers – whom rather than ‘taking the jobs of Australians’ as often claimed, can in fact be key contributors to the local economy.

Where we once failed to fully appreciate that highly qualified migrants help cover the gap of skill shortages, now we must incentivise these international workers to apply for skilled visas. And where we once took fruit pickers from overseas for granted, now we must acknowledge the vast amount of work they do supporting farmers across the country.

Recent policies suggest we’re moving in the right direction. For example, the Global Talent – Independent (GTI) program, which is designed to attract skilled migrants at the top of specific key sectors to Australia, allocated 15,000 places for the 2020/21 migration program year – up from 5,000 positions allocated the previous year.

There’s light at the end of the tunnel and migrants have a part to play in digging Australia back to familiar ground or above. As COVID-19 vaccine rollouts provide hope for a return to life as we knew it, moving forward an injection of international workers to fill both skilled and unskilled positions will be equally vital to the national recovery.

Foreigners can once again aim to be accepted into Australia to live and work. For applicants this exciting process begins by speaking to experienced migration consultants.

Contact MCA to learn more about your visa options