Labor scapegoats overseas vocational students

On February 8, Australian immigration minister Senator Chris Evans announced a review of the skilled migration program. The skilled migration program is aimed at attracting workers from abroad who hold skills that Australia’s capitalists especially need. These skills, listed on the immigration department’s Skilled Occupation List (SOL), contribute to eligibility for permanent residency.

The new SOL, announced on May 17, is mainly made up of highly specialised professions and trades that require either university training or long apprenticeships. It excludes hairdressing and commercial cookery. The inclusion of these trades on the previous Howard Coalition government’s SOL had made permanent residency relatively accessible for many young people from India, China and other Asian countries. This is because such trades can be acquired by short-term, albeit expensive, vocational courses.

Indeed, this had led to a mushrooming of a skilled migration industry made up of many unscrupulous migration agents and fly-by-night vocational colleges. Charging thousands of dollars to navigate the labyrinth of Australia’s visa system and up to $40,000 each year in tuition fees, this industry has already made a tidy sum from the pooled family-savings of these young Asians. As if that’s not enough, the shonky operators’ practices also extended to selling English-language competency certificates and cramming students into courses without adequate facilities.

An ABC TV Four Corners program in July 2009 brought much of this to public attention, already stirred by mounting racist violence against Indian students. Subsequent media coverage, protests by the students themselves, and vocal reactions in India led to a potential political embarrassment for the Rudd Labor government. Its concern centred on the fact that education is Australia’s third largest export industry.

This is fundamentally what led to the May 17 review. Instead of regulating the private vocational education sector, or better, closing it down and expanding the public TAFE system, the Rudd government decided to deal with the problem of the super-exploitation of overseas vocational students by scapegoating these students.

The May 17 announcement takes effect from July 1 and will apply to the 122,000 Asian vocational students already here studying for trades under the previous SOL. The vast majority will now be ineligible for permanent residency. Only those who graduated from vocational courses before February 8 will be eligible to apply for skilled migration under the old SOL.

The SOL will now be revised annually. As such, beginning a course for a skill on the SOL in one year will not assure the possibility of immigration in the next. The rip-off vocational colleges may be driven out of business, but it will be at the expense of the students who have already been super-exploited by these colleges, the migration agents, and the employers to whom these students have given a mandatory 900 hours of unpaid work under the guise of practical training.

The government has a twofold aim. Most immediately, it wants to protect the international reputation of its key education export earner, the universities. Stories of being ripped off by fly-by-night vocational colleges inevitably muddy the image of all education sellers. Countering this is critical for ensuring the universities remain reliant on overseas student fees. Secondly, the government wants to ensure it walls off any further paths for relatively easy mass migration from Asia.

The fact that all the vocational students are Asians is clearly discriminatory. If they were young white people from the Netherlands or Canada, it is unlikely the Rudd government would have revised the SOL. The capitalist media would be full of stories about the contribution these new vocational students already make to Australian society and how letting them stay would be only logical. However, Asian vocational students are already a part of Australian class society; indeed, many are a superexploited part of the Australian working class. In a 2009 Access Economics study it was noted that the “total economy-wide contribution to GDP made by international students is estimated as $12.3 billion in 2007-08”. Many of these students worked and paid taxes. Moreover, large numbers of the international vocational students each worked 22.5 weeks for free under the guise of training. Yet, they cannot even access student concessions on public transport in NSW and Victoria, let alone Medicare or social security benefits. This, together with their non-resident status, makes these students vulnerable to predatory employers.

Allowing these young people to stay if they wish is the just thing to do. This is what Fairness and Justice for Overseas Students (FAJOS) is campaigning for. A Sydney group that began after the February 8 announcement, it was originally formed by Korean vocational students and their supporters in the local Korean community. In April, it began reaching out more broadly. It now includes union organisers and individuals from the Labor Party, Greens, Revolutionary Socialist Party and Socialist Alliance.

FAJOS organised a small protest on May 1. It is organising a rally for 1pm on June 12 at Sydney Town Hall Square. For more information, contact Iggy Kim 0421 322 175, Sajit Shakya 0431 814 427, or Byung-jo Kang 0414 116 758.