The Prime Minister Julia Gillard is defending proposed changes to the 457 skilled worker visa system.
14 Mar 2013 - 7:16 PM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 2:01 PM

The Prime Minister Julia Gillard is defending proposed changes to the 457 skilled worker visa system.

 

Ms Gillard says her aim is to ensure that Australian workers are first in the job queue.

 

But the opposition and the Greens are questioning her motives, and another minor party says she's not going far enough.

 

Amanda Cavill reports.

 

The federal opposition has accused the Prime Minister trying to use xenophobic sentiment in the community to attract votes.

 

It says that's what's behind the announcement that she's cracking down on the use of foreign workers on temporary 457 visas.

 

Julia Gillard has told an Australian Council of Trade Unions meeting in Canberra she will not apologise to critics of the government's crackdown because it's socially and economically responsible.

 

Ms Gillard says there's been a 20 per cent increase in temporary foreign workers this year while employment growth is sitting at around one per cent.

 

She says there is clear evidence in some sectors that importing workers are being favoured over local working people.

 

"I offer absolutely no apology for putting the opportunities of Australian working people first, front and centre, wherever they were born. I have absolutely no doubt our policy approach to temporary foreign work is good economics and good social policy. The purpose of the 457 program speaks for itself - subclass 457 Temporary Work (Skilled) Visa - that is the policy objective, that's what it says on the packet."

 

457 visas are only supposed to be used when employers have been able to demonstrate there is a genuine skill shortage.

 

Ms Gillard says the crackdown on the alleged abuse of the visas will also include closing a loophole allowing foreign workers to be paid less than local workers.

 

She says she wants the issue to be dealt with as a policy issue about jobs, wages and working conditions, not just immigration management.

 

"It is absurd to rely on temporary overseas labour to fill ongoing skilled work in public hospitals while contracted local labour cleans those same hospitals in the middle of the night for around twenty dollars an hour. That is an absolutely damning failure of long-term national economic policy.We don't want to be a nation which can't care for its own sick and can't provide jobs for its own kids."

 

The Immigration Department's says last financial year, more than 46,000 457 visas were issued.

 

The coalition wants the annual intake cut to 38,000.

 

Bob Katter's Australia Party wants the figure slashed to just 6000.

 

Mr Katter says cutting ovcerseas skilled workers in favour of Australian workers will benefit the Australian economy.

 

"It will have a very favourable impact because instead of those people harbouring their money and taking it back overseas the money will stay in Australia and the wages that are being bid down but section 457 will be bid back up. So the people at the top, the slithering suits in Sydney won't be getting all the money . The money will be going down to ordinary Australians."

 

Greens Deputy Leader Adam Bandt agrees the 457 visa system needs to be changed.

 

But Mr Bandt accuses Labor of just using the issue to try to win votes.

 

"If Labor was serious there is one simple thing they would do and that is require people who are using 457 visas to advertise jobs locally first before seeking labour offshore. It's a very simple test and it could be enshrined in law . If they are not prepared to do it then it shows that all of this talk about protecting locals has been driven by focus groups and yet again like the mining tax the big rhetoric has failed to be matched with real action."

 

Julia Gillard says with the federal election fast approaching, Labor is also planning to try to rush through legislation to insert new protections for penalty rates in the Fair Work Act.

She says the government would like to ensure that penalty rates, overtime, shift work loading and public holiday pay are definite, formal considerations for the Fair Work Commission when it sets award rates and conditions.