The aged care sector is concerned that sudden reductions to working hours for student visa holders could negatively impact the already-stretched workforce.
Student visa holders form a critical part of the care industry – Catholic Health Australia (CHA) told the Sydney Morning Herald at least 10% of its workforce are student visa holders, and 40% of those are working over 48 hours a fortnight.
They have enjoyed unrestricted availability throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as caps on working hours had been lifted.
But last week, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil introduced a raft of changes to “fix” Australia’s migration system, including reducing the number of hours international students could work to a maximum of 48 hours per fortnight.
“One of the reasons there is so much exploitation is because we have allowed low-wage migration programs to operate in the shadows, for example, through [the] exploitation of our international student visa system,” Minister O’Neil told the Australian Press Club.
That has allowed areas of the economy that rely on these workers to become either highly vulnerable to exploitation or subject to chronic, ongoing labour shortages that put huge pressure on existing workers.”
“Instead of pretending that some students are here to study when they are actually here to work, we need to look to create proper, capped, safe, tripartite pathways for workers in key sectors, such as care.”
Minister O’Neill also said the Government would increase the temporary skilled migration income threshold (TSMIT) from $53,900 to $70,000 from July 2023, while up to 17,000 temporary skilled workers will be able to apply for permanent residency by the end of the year.
Those decisions are intended to provide migrant workers with less opportunity to be taken advantage of, such as using people on student visas to fill low-paid jobs.
But it’s the fast-paced approach that concerned Aged & Community Care Providers Association (ACCPA) Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Tom Symondson the most.
Mr Symondson said ACCPA has been advocating for change but it’s important to give aged care providers time to adjust as they could be hit hard by the reduced hours for workers with a student visa.
“ACCPA has been advocating for some time for changes to Australia’s immigration system to allow for quicker entry of workers and more flexibility on visa requirements to ease the acute workforce shortages in aged care. This includes the plans announced by the Minister to restrict working hours for student visa holders from July 1, 2023,” Mr Symondson said.
“ACCPA is seeking an extension of six months to the current allowance of working hours for Student Visa holders to support aged care providers during the present workforce crisis. This would allow time to determine if worker availability is improving. As it stands, the decision will likely have the impact of worsening the current shortages.”
Aged care providers have already expressed their concerns about the incoming student visa changes, with CHA Aged Care Director Jason Kara telling The SMH they have raised the issue with the Government to ensure there is a collaborative approach that benefits providers and workers.
Eldercare Chief Executive, Jane Pickering, also told The SMH that the reduction in hours would have a devastating impact on their services while increasing the pressure on an already stretched workforce.
“International students are an important part of our workforce and the increase to their hours during covid, which has continued until now, has been invaluable. Reducing these hours will have a devastating impact on our services and increase pressure on an already stretched workforce,” Ms Pickering said.
“Given the urgency of the workforce crisis and the fast approaching changes which take effect on 1st July, we keenly await more detail from the Government. But we are optimistic that a better migration system will have a significant impact on how we deliver aged care.”
Despite the optimism, Ms Pickering said aged care struggles to compete with other sectors offering more money and incentives, with the lure of a rewarding and fulfilling career not enough in a tight market.
“Students do often fill the gaps in our rosters and the relaxation of the hours they could work did help significantly during COVID,” Ms Pickering said. “We need all the help we can get at present so taking away any of our options will have a negative impact at this point in time, especially as we are ramping up to meet the new requirements of 200 minutes of care per resident per day in October 2023.”
The increased $70,000 TSMIT pay threshold for temporary workers – while beneficial for workers – will also have a big impact on aged care workers.
Some visa holders will no longer be eligible for aged care roles like personal care work, as the minimum threshold would be well above the average salary which sits in the $50,000-$60,000 range.
But the Government does plan to introduce a visa for care economy workers, which Minister O’Neil said would assist in providing long-term solutions for aged care.
“But I think what is really important here is not just thinking about this as a short-term problem,” she said.
“We have a structural issue of workers in our care sector, and one of the reasons I’ve talked about restructuring our temporary skilled program is we need to provide a long-term solution to this, not just see people come in on ad hoc labour agreements and that sort of thing, which is not really going to address this ongoing problem for the country.”
Minister O’Neil said the Government is also ready to work with States and Territories to ensure that migrants can be better supported when relocating to regional areas, including providing more schools for students and culturally appropriate services.