Chefs could be on the chopping block in migration shake-up (2024)

Restaurant owners may soon have to look locally for chefs if the federal government follows through on its "skill-first" migration shake-up.

Last year, the government promised to streamline the list of occupations eligible for employer-sponsored visas.

It intended to prioritise migrants with in-demand skills who could fill local shortages, replacing an approach Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil said was "broken" and "outdated".

But the first draft of the new job list, devised by the government agency Jobs and Skills Australia (JSA), has drawn concern from employer groups who say it does not accurately reflect skill shortages.

Chefs, cooks, bakers, and managers – occupations that account for thousands of visas a year – are not on the list.

Neither are IT workers, accountants or hairdressers. And the construction industry, which is key to the government's home building pledge but which is suffering a severe labour shortage, has also missed out.

Some of those professions could be saved by the government's plan to grant visas to anybody earning over $130,000, regardless of occupation.

But the hospitality industry is gearing up for a fight, with the head of industry body the Australian Hotels Association Stephen Ferguson warning migration is essential to the business model of many restaurants and cafes.

"We were surprised to see chefs and cooks marked as uncertain," he said.

"It's a very hot topic for our members … The fact is we have a shortage. There's got to be a recognition of that need."

The list also contains peculiar inconsistencies.

Those who farm chicken get the nod, but those who farm cows, sheep, pigs and goats could miss out.

And private music teachers could make the list, but private drama, dance and art teachers are in the cold.

But JSAwas unable to provide the ABC with any detail on how the list was constructed. It is now open for public consultation before final advice will be provided to government.

Rip it up and start again

Ms O'Neil and Immigration Minister Andrew Giles have made it no secret that they want a total rewrite of the migration system, not just tinkering.

One motivation is to reduce the size of the temporary migration program.

The unexpectedly large return of temporary migrants since the pandemic has been used as a political football, even though the new entrants have been hungrily absorbed by businesses desperate for workers. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, who called for more temporary migrants in 2022, has now called for fewer.

But the ministers are also convinced that the temporary program has been misused to create conditions of "permanent temporariness" that do not benefit migrants or employers.

They have framed their reform plans as a "less is more" exercise, emphasising the words "targeted" and "streamlined".

A second motivation is a conviction that the current system is "broken" and needs a new slate. The ministers were shocked at the enormous visa processing backlog they encountered when they took office.

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Some of this they sought to blame on Coalition mismanagement, but they also recognised that a hideously complicated system had become as hard to administer as it was for migrants and employers to navigate, thanks to what Ms O'Neil has called the "bowl of spaghetti" of confusing visa classes, eligibility tests and job lists.

A review by former top bureaucrat Martin Parkinson affirmed this view, concluding a "complex, costly and often slow" approach to migration was not meeting Australia's needs.

In December, the ministers unveiled a plan to dispense with the spaghetti, to be replaced by just three streams for work visas.

A top stream for migrants whose prospective employer will pay them more than $130,000, who can get a visa regardless of occupation.

A bottom stream for migrants who earn below $70,000, who can get visas in special circ*mstances only (the details are fuzzy, but one example is aged care).

And in between $70,000 and $130,000, entry is determined by a new jobs list with a focus on skills that are in high demand or short supply.

The first draft of that list was quietly released online by JSA last month.

A very particular set of skills

The draft list is actually three lists: 183 occupations JSA is "confident" will make the cut, 214 it is confident won't, and 307 it is unsure about.

The latter two categories include many occupations which are currently eligible for visas, but which are now tapped for either possible or probable removal in the slimmed-down new system.

Among the candidates to be "streamlined" are many of the most popularoccupations for work visas in today's systems – occupations that together accounted for about 30,000 visas in the last financial year alone.

Chefs, software engineers, motor mechanics, accountants, cooks and marketing specialists, all in the top 15 most popular visa-holder occupations today, are slated for possible removal.

Another two of the top 15, cafe and restaurant managers and ICT support engineers, are slated for probable removal.

Carpenters, hairdressers, bakers, panel beaters, graphic designers and PR professionals are also left in limbo, as are several varieties of ICT support.

Again, a prospective migrant earning above $130,000 could gain entry regardless of occupation, and anyone earning $70,000 could not gain entry regardless of occupation.

Brickies maybe, concreters no

There are several examples on the list where similar jobs are treated in different ways.

Carpenters are not on the list, and neither are joiners. But a separate category, "carpenters and joiners", made the cut.

Bricklayers are listed as a possible no, and concreters as a probable no.

This was despite government agency Infrastructure Australia in March declaring a 229,000-worker shortfall in construction, when compared to what is needed to meet targets for housing, energy infrastructure and other major projects.

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Trent Wiltshire, a migration expert at the Grattan Institute, said this showed the "fraught" nature of devising occupation lists in the first place.

"What's on and off the list just identifies how impossible it is to do this analytical task of figuring out what jobs are in shortage.

"It's pretty much impossible to argue we don't have a shortage of carpenters or painters given our plan to build more homes, but this list suggests they may or may not be in shortage."

JSA was unable to explain the rationale for these apparent discrepancies or provide any explanation for how the published lists were constructed.

Its website promises a forthcoming methodology document, but a spokesperson said it was still being checked for errors and could not confirm when it would be published.

Consultation closes on May 10.

Open for consultation

Mr Ferguson said he intended to make a submission to lobby for the inclusion of chefs, cooks, cafe managers and other hospitality occupations.

"We'll be able to put forward plenty of evidence about why those occupations are in shortage," he said.

"At the moment there are 8,000 chef positions being advertised on [job website] Seek … I can guarantee you that productivity will decline if you don't have enough workers to generate as much turnover as you can.

"If we can't open because we don't have a chef, it means the barman doesn't have a job, the manager, the receptionist, and the business isn't as productive as it could be."

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He said it wasn't possible to fill the jobs locally because apprentice completion rates were "among historic lows".

"Unfortunately many back-of-house roles in the hospitality industry just aren't popular amongst school leavers."

Other submissions from businesses lobbying for occupations to be included are likely, as are submissions from unions lobbying for occupations to be kept off the list to shelter domestic workers.

For example, construction union the CFMEU has long objected to attempts to bring in more construction workers.

Mr Wiltshire cited this as an example of how public consultation could make the lists even worse.

"Consultation can very quickly lead into lobbying from industry and unions," he said. "It's always been a bit of a black box about how these lists are constructed in the end."

Another issue is that lists can be slow to adapt as new occupations evolve, and demand for workers shifts.

The occupations on the JSA list are based on the standard occupation classification compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

It was last updated in 2022, for the first time in a decade, to add new occupations such as data scientist, content creator and sex worker.

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But Mr Wiltshire pointed out it was already falling out of date again because it didn't reflect jobs in emerging fields like artificial intelligence.

"Stagnant lists aren't good, but on the other hand frequent change isn't good either because it creates uncertainty for prospective migrants."

Instead, Mr Wiltshire said the government should use a purely salary-based approach to its permanent migration program, allowing any migrant to come in if an employer considers they are valuable enough to pay them above some appropriately set threshold.

He suggested a more flexible approach could be useful for temporary migration, for example to fill a construction shortage.

Mr Ferguson said he did not support a purely salary-based approach.

"I think if you just went to salary you'd just end up with the extremely well-paid skills coming to Australia. The fact is we have a shortage of trades like mechanics, cooks, chefs, vets, schoolteachers, nurses and aged care workers who don't fit that bill of high earnings."

Chefs could be on the chopping block in migration shake-up (2024)
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