The decision by the Australian Government to abolish the much-criticised 457 visa programme which allowed skilled overseas workers in the country for up to four years has been broadly welcomed.
But while most agree that the programme made it ‘too easy’ for firms to employ people from overseas without having sufficient checks to make sure they could not find employees already in Australia, there are warnings that abolishing the 457 will not miraculously solve immigration issues.
Some sectors have pointed out that it worked and allowed people from other countries with the necessary skills to work in areas where there was indeed a serious shortage of skills and concerns have been voiced about a tougher English language requirement.
Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, described it as a chance for Australia to rebuild confidence in the skilled overseas worker visa system but warned that the replacement programme has to enable genuine gaps in the workforce to be filled and allow employers to look abroad when needed.
And the Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA), which represents the resources industry which has been a big user of the programme, said that getting rid of the 457 visa stream will not help solve the nation’s pressing employment issues and economic challenges.
‘The capacity for businesses to hire temporary workers to fill genuine skill shortages has been an overall boon for Australia, allowing the economy to ride out volatile economic cycles including in the mining industry,’ Westacott said.
‘Now that the Government has taken this decision, it is crucial that they work with employers to get the details right and ensure industry’s ability to fill genuine skills shortages is enhanced, not degraded,’ she added.
Tara Diamond, acting AMMA chief executive, said that resource industry employers welcome any move to ensure the nation’s skilled migration systems are fit for current economic circumstances but said that it must have the full confidence of the Australian public.
‘It should be recognised that the 457 visa programme has worked as intended. The system was built to be responsive to changes in our economy and fluctuating labour demand, and has delivered on this objective,’ she pointed out.
‘But overhauling a responsible skilled immigration policy that has proven highly responsive to labour demand and supported nation building projects, is hardly the type of big picture policy thinking that will address Australia’s pressing employment and economic challenges.
The Government’s attention would be better directed at tackling Australia’s job killing workplace relations system which, unlike 457 visas, has proven to be a major barrier to competitiveness and employment growth,’ she added.
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox believes that reform was inevitable as while the 457 visa system was a highly valued programme, misunderstandings of its use and exaggerations of its misuse led it to become a lightning rod for anti-migration sentiments.
But he warned that changes to language testing would need to be monitored to ensure they do not adversely impact on access to skilled workers in the lower skilled categories. ‘Many of our workplaces are multilingual and a working knowledge of English is sufficient in many cases to meet both operational and safety requirements,’ he explained.
Accounting firm KPMG pointed out that the number of 457 visas has been falling but there was no evidence that it was not working properly. ‘This move does not align with Australia’s stated commitment to increasing innovation and causes uncertainty for foreign companies considering investing or doing business here,’ said KPMG immigration practice national leader Michael Wall.