by Tom 7/12/2014 5:53:00 PM

457 visa

The 457 visa debate has 
escalated in recent weeks.

The Australian federal government's decision to tighten rules regarding the 457 visa program has ignited a bitter row across the country. Everyone from the prime minister down has weighed into the debate but what does this spell for anyone wanting to work in Australia?

What are the changes?

Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor announced that he would be tightening the visa stream's rules late last month. Using the latest employment records, the minister said increased visa approval rates contrasted against steady employment rates as justification for the rules changes.

The minister said rates had risen by over 20% in the year to January 2012; this, combined with input from unions and even word of mouth from local voters was proof that the system is being abused by opportunistic employers to undercut local workers.

The minister said he would be increasing English language requirements for visa approvals as well as the minimum wage requirements and providing greater power to investigate spurious visa approvals.

What has been the reaction?

The minister's announcement trigger a dispute which quickly escalated to Prime Minister Julia Gillard's attention, who defended Mr O'Connor's decision and then clashed with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

Both parties have accused the other of stoking xenophobic sentiment among communities in order to win votes, sentiment which has led to at least one protest march in Melbourne - with another reportedly scheduled for today - and the reemergence of controversial politician Pauline Hanson.

Workers' unions in Australia have also had their say, defending the visa option but supporting the changes, citing reports of the undercutting of local workers as well as the abuse of foreign workers who are afraid of speaking out through fear of losing their job.

ACTU Secretary David Oliver said his union will be establishing a national campaign and phone line for foreign workers to report the abuse. Mr Oliver cited one case of a Filipino sandblaster who was forced to do extra work for his boss.

"He was made to clean out office toilets, he was made to clean the bosses house, he had to go over and mow the boss' son's lawn," said Mr Oliver, adding that the man eventually complained and was subsequently deported.

What are the realities of the program?

As Australia's economy has largely been supported in recent years - particularly through the global financial crisis - by the resources industry, much of the 457 visa debate has focused on bringing in workers for mining and construction projects.

Cameron Dart, general manager of AWX Contracting, says that while Australian workers may be available for such projects, many are reluctant to move to the projects' remote locations.

Mr Dart said hiring a foreign workers on a 457 visa is often not a cheaper option; costing up to 20% more than hiring an Australian worker.

The real concern according to Mr Dart however, is the debate's focus on these industries when in fact, the industries which rely on the 457 visa program the most are health and social care and food processing - particularly those based in regional Australia.

Citing a recent study by the National Farmers' Federation, Mr Dart said there was 2.5 jobs available for every 1 graduate studying an agricultural discipline.

Mr Dart also said that while the mining industry is in need of workers, many are siphoned off from surrounding areas, leaving further gaps in other industries which are already in need of workers.

What does this mean for foreign workers?

A tightening of the 457 visa stream is likely to leave opportunities for foreign workers on other categories of visa. Many parts of regional Australia depend on foreign workers to sustain their industries - particularly during busy periods such as harvest seasons.

Fewer 457 visa workers in regional Australia is likely to mean greater opportunity for working holiday makers to find the regional work which will qualify them for a second year visa.

Fewer 457 visa opportunities in urban areas or in skilled occupations means focus will turn to the general skilled migration program - which is a lengthier and more scrutinised process but grants greater freedoms than the 457 visa.

When do the changes take effect?

Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor has several options when it comes to implementing his changes: regulatory changes, administrative changes or legislative changes.

Regulatory changes are easy to enact and reversible but administrative changes will impose little chance for enforcement. However, it is thought the minister favours enacting legislative changes.

This option means the matter will be debated in parliament, setting the stage for a fiery debate between a government facing uncertain re-election in September and an opposition with a staunch stance on immigration.

It is thought the governing Labor Party sees a parliamentary debate as an opportunity to slam an opposition who have supported the 457 visa program with changes that are popular with many voters.

However, given the debate's volatile nature and the rate at which it has already spiralled, whether the recently-appointed minister wants to take that chance remains to be seen.

- Tom Blackett is the Marketing Manager for the Australian Visa Bureau.