Work visas, and specifically the legitimacy and accessibility of 457 Temporary Work (Skilled) visas, have been thrust back into the spotlight during recent weeks with both the government and opposition seeking to tighten elements of the program, writes AMMA head of policy, Scott Barklamb.  

RECENT announcements from both sides of Australian politics follow increasing global pressures on labour migration, and on migration generally, throughout 2017 including:

  • Increasing debate on the future role of labour migration (both documented and un-documented) and its impact on job opportunities for US citizens and residents generated by President-elect Trump during the US election campaign.
  • The impact of community concerns regarding labour migration on the “Brexit” plebiscite in the United Kingdom.
  • Medium to long term labour market and economic implications for continental Europe of mass undocumented migration from North Africa and the Middle East.
  • Wider global trends towards increased protectionism, manifesting in pressures not only for new tariffs but also for protection of “local” job holders against migrant labour.

Government announcements

Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, announced changes in the rules for 457 visas impacting the period that visa holders can remain in Australia after their employment ends with an employer sponsor.

This period will be reduced from 90 days to 60 days, taking effect for visa holders leaving jobs after 19 November 2016.

The government claims this will:

  • Reduce competition from international employees for Australians who are actively looking for work.
  • Reduce the vulnerability of 457 visa holders – who are only permitted to work for an approved sponsor and are not eligible for unemployment benefits. The shorter deadline is said to stop unemployed 457 visa holders from entering into informal (untaxed or non-compliant) employment arrangements.

Protecting Vulnerable Workers Bill

Minister Dutton’s announcement should be viewed in the context of the policy the government took to the 2016 federal election to further tighten visa requirements following high profile scandals (in relation to 7-Eleven and parts of the agricultural sector).

The Coalition’s Policy to protected vulnerable workers seeks to:

  • Increase penalties for employers who underpay workers / fail to keep proper employment records.
  • Introduce an even higher penalty for “serious contraventions” for any employer that has “intentionally ripped off” employees, regardless of the employer’s size.
  • Introduce a new offence for franchisors and parent companies who fail to deal with exploitation by their franchisees (a response to the 7-Eleven scandal).
  • Increase funding for the Office of the Fair Work Ombudsman by $20 million.
  • Strengthen the Office of the Fair Work Ombudsman to more effectively deal with employers who “intentionally exploit” employees.
  • Establish a ‘Migrant Workers Taskforce’ within the Office of the Fair Work Ombudsman to target employers who exploit skilled migrants.

AMMA expects a Protecting Vulnerable Workers Bill to be introduced in federal parliament shortly after it resumes in February 2017.

Opposition announcement

Federal Labor has also moved to recycle one of its previous election announcements, and recommit to requiring all businesses that want to sponsor a 457 visa holder to first advertise locally for at least four weeks prior to doing so.

Labor recently confirmed it would also:

  • Apply its four-weekly advertising requirement every four months, rather than on an annual labour market search.
  • Impose local training requirements on businesses which apply to use a “significant” number of temporary workers.
  • Place further conditions on 457 visa holders who are working in licenced occupations like plumbing.

The election announcement went further and indicated Labor would:

  • Require all jobs to be advertised for a minimum of four weeks as part of labour market testing obligations (i.e. before being able to apply for a visa).
  • Ban job advertisements that “target only overseas workers”.
  • “Crackdown on job ads that set unrealistic and unwarranted skills and experience requirements” for vacant positions.

Let’s not forget the facts

The access of migrant employees to work in Australia and other developed countries generates significant heat and politicking, both domestically and throughout the world. This is not going to abate, and AMMA anticipates significant debate on mechanisms to further protect migrant employees throughout 2017.

Much of this centres on the lower paid and abuses in industries that contrast markedly with high wage, high compliance resource workplaces. An important priority for AMMA will be to ensure that any additional regulation is targeted to, and limited to, those areas that “require” it, and there is no collateral damage or unnecessary regulatory burden for high paying, high compliance use of 457 visas in the resource sector.

A key part of this is encouraging policy makers to focus on the facts of migrant work in Australia, not supposition and prejudice.

Key facts that should usefully be borne in mind in considering this area include the following.

The use of 457 visas has fallen massively

In the year to June 2016, 45,400 new 457 visas were granted across all industries, taking total primary 457 visa holders currently in Australia to 97,776 (see Subclass 457 Quarterly Report, June 2016, p.1).

This represents a massive fall in 457 visa grants from peak levels at the height of the resource investment and construction boom. Looking at annual approvals, the number of 457 visas being granted is at its lowest level in five years, and the second lowest recorded – and this has occurred in an expanding overall labour market:

Temporary Work (Skilled) Visas Granted Per Year[1]

Year 08-09 09-10 10-11 11-12 12-13 13-14 14-15 15-16
Visas 50,660 34,700 49,080 68,310 68,480 51,940 51,130 45,400

 

The total number of primary 457 visa holders in Australia (excluding spouses and families), has also fallen markedly and is set to rapidly fall further as visas expire and visa holders depart or migrate and are not replaced.

Total Temporary Work (Skilled) Visa Holders in Australia[2]

Year Jun 2010 Jun 2011 Jun 2012 Jun 2013 Jun 2014 Jun 2015 Jun 2016
Total 68,402 72,031 91,052 107,973 108,809 104,753 97,766

 

In the mining industry alone, the number of primary 457 visa applications lodged fell from 1,850 for the period 2014-15 to 30 June 2015 to 1,130 for the period 2015-16 to 30 June 2016 (that’s a decline of nearly 40% in 12 months).

The mining industry is still the highest paying: The latest data from the Department of Immigration and Border protection indicates that the average base salary for ‘mining’ 457 visas is $170,400, and average total remuneration is $218,200 (Tables 1.08 and 1.09). In both cases, this tops averages in all other industries by some distance

This comes on top of:

  • The minimum salary for access to a 457 visa across all industries of $53,900, which exceeds award minimum rates of pay in most cases.
  • The requirement on sponsoring employers that terms and conditions of employment for the person sponsored under a 457 visa be no less favourable than those they provide or would provide to an Australian performing equivalent work in the same location.

457 visa holders often permanently migrate to Australia: It cannot be assumed that all 457 visa holders work in Australia for a short period then return to their own country. More than 50,000 457 visa holders each year pursue permanent residency / citizenship and seek to stay in Australia, principally using the economic migration stream (see Quarterly Report, June 2016, p.2).

Those debating 457 visas and the work of visa holders would do well to remember they are talking about tens of thousands of people who will make a permanent life in the Australian community and their families and friends.

For further information, please contact AMMA’s head of policy Scott Barklamb via [email protected]

[1]www.border.gov.au/about/reports-publications/research-statistics/statistics/work-in-australia

[2] Grand total, including both primary visa holders, spouses and families.