Australia

Many changes in the pipeline – What will the impact be on workers with temporary visas?

Many changes in the pipeline – What will the impact be on workers with temporary visas?

The 457 temporary visa workers are doing the jobs at places that locals do not want to or are unable to do.
The 457 visa workers are tending to the sick as general practitioners or nursing the dying at their bedsides or solving technology needs that are changing the landscape for better or cooking and feeding hungry stomachs in some of the most remote towns of Australia. They are filling for labour shortages in rural and regional Australia.

Inconvenient Truth

As of June 2016, there were roughly 95,000 temporary skilled migrants in Australia under the 457 visa program. Despite adding a partner in the count, they still make up less than 1.2% of the Australian workforce. And, there are 9.7% less 457 visa holders in Australia this year compared to last year.
Despite what the statistics say, Australia’s 457 Temporary Worker Visa program is in the news again, as the government and the opposition are seeking changes to toughen the program, under growing concerns of Australia’s high unemployment rate.

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Yo-Yo-ing Before the Elections?

The most serious anti-457 move came from Opposition Leader Bill Shorten who introduced a private member’s bill – the Migration Amendment (Putting Local Workers First) Bill – into the Parliament to address Australia’s high unemployment rate. According to Labor, the 457
visa is allowing migrants to take away jobs that could be filled in by Australians.
Their solution is to tighten the 457 visa program. Labour wants employers to prove the need for the nominated occupations and that none of these positions can be filled by Australians. The employers are required to advertise jobs locally against strict criteria for longer periods of time before opting for offshore recruitment.
Hot on the heels of the opposition’s tilt towards an ‘Australia-first’ job pitch, the Turnbull Government too tried to tip the scale in favour of the local job seekers. They announced plans to cut the number of eligible occupations for the 457 visa workers. As another drastic measure, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton reduced the time for a 457 visa holder to remain in Australia between jobs – from 90 days to 60 days. That, they believe will give Australians a better chance of competing for jobs.

Political Mudslinging

Brownie points are up for scoring in this game of one-upmanship. Labour said the government needed to get its priorities right towards the Australians rather having cheap labour that undercut Australian jobs. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in turn, accused Mr.Shorten of “breathtaking” hypocrisy of granting a record number of 68,480 visas during his tenure as the employment minister in the Gillard government. During the same period, Labour had also extended the interim period to 90 days from 28 as part of its overhaul of the 457 visa system

Concerns about Policy Swings

Experts have warned against controls of the 457 program as it is not the answer to the unemployment problem. Recruiting local qualified workers for specialised roles is not easy with Australia’s current skills. 457 visas fill genuine skill gaps in the economy.
The government reforms increases the vulnerability of the 457 visa workers and the power of the employers in their dual role of employer and immigration sponsor
Government’s move to reduce the in-between job period is not thought of as a clear-headed move, as it may go against exactly what it is supposed to achieve. The workers could be exploited. Visa holders will be reluctant to leave a position to search for a new job, even if they are being underpaid or mistreated, as there is a risk they will have to leave Australia.
Labour’s scheme is not pragmatic either as it is quite cumbersome to regulate and police everyone’s hiring, especially when it is done online these days. Employers can claim they did not get the right skills before hiring migrant workers. Ethical businesses will follow the rule and wait to find that they do not, after all, have the right talent locally, which they knew in the first place. Their costs will escalate. Rogue employers will continue to evade the system.

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Exploitation in the Shadows

Since the 457 visa program has existed, there have been a small number of employers who have been reported for abuses of 457 visa holders – underpayment or using workers for a job that they had not signed up for. There have been cases of equivalently skilled Australians being fired to be replaced by cheap migrant labour.
Earlier this year, a company in Darwin was fined almost half a million dollars for underpaying employees on 457 visas and forcing them to repay parts of their salary.

White Riot Against Immigration

Bill Shorten has been criticised for using the 457 issue to exploit the anti-migrant sentiment in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the United States, the Brexit decision in the UK and the rise of One Nation here.
Now even Hungary is mulling a wall to keep outsiders from crossing its borders. Experts see this as a global wave of revolutionary populism, where the villains are immigration and globalisation. Trump’s campaign grew the myth that trade and immigration were responsible for joblessness among working-class Americans.
Attitudes of citizens in rich, developed countries are hardening towards the immigrants. And it is becoming increasingly difficult for people from developing countries to move to another country for job opportunities. One Nation wants to end free trade and globalism – close borders, close trade.
Labour is veering too towards an ‘Australia-first’ economic nationalism, after Trump’s win.

457 Program – An Economic Imperative

The policy shifts in the temporary worker’s rights have been handled chaotically and is a problem of the government’s own making.
If today the government kicked out all the 457 visa holders, then going by the arguments provided by the political parties, the unemployment would suddenly fall because a local would automatically step in to take their places.
However, the opposite is more likely to occur, as the talent and the numbers are not yet jobbed ready. Businesses would go off track due to stop of operations and lack of manpower to replace them, e.g.abattoirs.
Also because of the ageing population, the dependency ratio is increasing dramatically. They have to be replaced in the labour market.
457 workers are economically good for the country.
They generally create more jobs than they take. Three quarters of 457 visa holders help to train or develop other workers. Professionals on temporary visas fill many positions in hospitals and medical clinics in far-flung towns. Skilled workers on 457 visas help provide essential services and generate employment by spending money in Australian businesses.
The 457 holders improve the overall budget position because most earn relatively high salaries and pay a significant amount of income tax, yet they generally have no access to government benefits and services.

Symbiotic Relationship

457 visa program and the skilled labour migration will benefit the Australian economy. Labour also has a point when it claims that Australians are missing out on job opportunities.
If the Coalition government wants to increase job opportunities for local workers, they will have to redesign the 457 visa properly to ensure it meets genuine skill shortages that they are protected from exploitation in the labour market and investments, training of Australian workers, particularly the unemployed youth should continue.
An independent agency should compile the occupation lists to ensure it is regularly updated and reflects the changing skills profile of the economy. The lists should also reflect the change in the job demand from one region to another.

The visa program should be a responsible process. The answer is not to restrict or abolish the program but to ensure it works in the way it was intended – to meet a genuine need and be beneficial to all involved.

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