Government eyes increase to skilled migration, but says it won’t be the simple fix to Australia’s labour woes

Treasurer Jim Chalmers says a proposal to temporarily double skilled migration places to 200,000 to address critical labour shortages is a reasonable one, as the federal government plans a jobs summit to find common ground in the private sector.

Business groups have lobbied for a lift in the migration intake as nearly every sector struggles to find workers.

Mr Chalmers told the ABC that labour shortages were putting a “real handbrake” on the economy.

“Certainly, I think, as we emerge from that period of COVID where the migration tap was largely turned off, that should be an opportunity to think about the best mix of migration as the program gathers speed again,” Mr Chalmers said.

“That’s something we’re talking to business about.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus said any reforms to migration must provide opportunities, rather than take advantage of migrants.

“Our immigration system should provide opportunities for workers who want to build a better life for themselves and their families in this country, not facilitate systemic wage theft and exploitation,” Ms McManus said.

The Australian Retailers Association said yesterday that, even with rising inflation, supply chain issues and increased fuel and energy costs, labour and skill shortages remained “top of mind” for businesses.

“From our smallest cafes to our largest multi-nationals, the issue is widespread,” the ARA’s chief executive, Paul Zahra, said.

“There are nearly half a million job vacancies across the country, including over 40,000 in retail trade alone.”

A recent OECD report found Australia’s labour shortage was the second-worst among developed nations.

Unions push to take power from businesses to tear up EBAs

However, while labour shortages are front of mind for business, unions have indicated their focus at the national jobs summit in September will be on overhauling industrial relations.

In particular, the ACTU has called for businesses to be stripped of their power to unilaterally cancel enterprise bargaining agreements.

The Treasurer agreed that EBAs need to be revisited, and said the issue had contributed to the past decade of stagnant wages.

“The tearing up of agreements has been a problem in our industrial relations architecture for some time,” Mr Chalmers said.

Despite some early differences, Mr Chalmers said the upcoming jobs summit would be a chance to find common ground, rather than create further division. 

Deputy Opposition Leader Sussan Ley mocked the upcoming summit as a “Labor talkfest” that would boost stationery shop sales of post-it notes “and that’s about it”.

Mr Chalmers dismissed the comments.

“They have had a decade, these characters, to bring people together in the national economic interest and they haven’t done it,” he said.

With room for only 100 attendees on the summit guest list, Mr Chalmers said the opposition would need to prove it would be constructive to be invited.

The Treasurer did not confirm whether independents or other parties would be invited to the summit, but said the government would ensure they were able to contribute.