Australia’s temporary skilled migration program – managed primarily through the 457 visa system – is in the news again, with both the government and opposition promising to reign in the scheme and boost job opportunities for Australians.
The government has announced plans to cut the number of occupations which temporary skilled migrants will be eligible for, and is restricting the amount of time migrants can spend in-between jobs.
There are approximately 95,000 migrants currently in Australia under the program.
We spoke to two migration experts, Doctor Joanna Howe at the University of Adelaide School of Law and Doctor Chris F Wright, an employment and immigration expert at the University of Sydney.
Both told SBS that the 457 visa program actually functioned pretty well, but that there was room for improvements.
“Policy really got made on the run on temporary migrants over the past 10 to 15 years or so,” Dr Wright tells SBS.
Employer dependency can lead to exploitation
Dr Wright says one of the biggest problems across the temporary migration program – including both skilled and non-skilled streams – is the relationship of dependence which is created by requiring migrants to have employer sponsorship.
“All these sorts of laws that are in the temporary workers schemes that place a degree of power in the hands of the employer – that make migrants reliant on maintaining their employment relationship – that leads to dependence on the employer, and this needs to be addressed,” he says.
“It’s one of the key reasons that workers are able to be exploited.”
Doctor Howe says there have been numerous cases of employers asking more of migrant workers than local workers, which leaves local workers at a competitive disadvantage.
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.
A Filipino 457 employee told a Senate inquiry she was forced to pay $250 a week for accommodation which crammed six workers into one bedroom.
Dr Wright says it is the employer-dependent relationship allows for such abuses to take place.
“Until we shifted from permanent to temporary workers schemes a couple of decades ago – this wasn’t an issue in Australia.”
“It makes it really difficult for employers who want to do the right thing – because they might find themselves at a disadvantage,” he says.
A recent change - shortening the amount of time 457 visa-holders have to search for new jobs - is a step in the wrong direction, Dr Wright says.
It puts more pressure on workers to stick with their employers, even in cases of mistreatment, both he and Dr Howe says.
The list of eligible occupations needs urgent reform
Both experts say another key weakness in the program is the list of occupations which are allowed in.
It’s that list which Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has signaled he plans to cut back on.
“The Minister’s indication that it would be tightened up is welcome,” Dr Wright says, “it’s completely haphazard in the way that the list is set up.”
There are over 600 occupations currently on the Consolidated Sponsored Occupation List.
“The name is quite misrepresentative – it’s a comprehensive list of skilled occupations, not a consolidated list,” Dr Wright says.
Dr Howe agrees. It’s not a genuine shortage list, and there are real concerns over how the list is compiled in the first place, she says.
“There’s a real lack of transparency and accountability of how occupations get added,” she says.
“It’s something that happens behind closed doors which raises concerns about how special interest groups can influence that list."
“Industry is very concerned about ensuring that that list has as many occupations on it as possible,” she adds.
“It reduces the xenophobia and racism around the allegations around migrant workers stealing local workers' jobs if it’s a more transparent process.”
In a recent report, the Productivity Commission says the government should scrap the list altogether, and instead use the shorter list of around 180 high-demand professions which is used for the permanent migration scheme.
“I agree,” Dr Wright says, “it’s non-responsive to rapid changes in demand – but it works pretty well.”
He says another option could be an independent commission or panel which can review an update the list in a responsive, demand-driven manner.
Dr Howe says that when a job isn’t in demand but a temporary worker still comes in, it means they’re more likely to undercut Australian wages and won’t have the same degree of bargaining power.
“That worker is more vulnerable to exploitation and there’s the chance of displacing local workers,” she says.
Both Dr Howe and Dr Wright say it’s crucial that the government fix the flaws in Australia’s temporary migration programs and increase transparency.
Stories of exploitation and workers being brought into non-competitive industries diminish public confidence in immigration policy in Australia, Dr Wright says.
“I think it’s important for Australia and our status as a nation of immigrants – as we’ve seen overseas, these things can unravel pretty quickly.”