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Temporary visas for skilled workers at center of political storm

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If you’ve contemplated a year or three working in Australia on a temporary visa, think again. A domestic political storm means the climate for temporary skilled workers is likely to worsen.

Australia escaped the worst ravages of the global financial crisis, experiencing neither a technical recession nor a major bump in unemployment. But the national mood is sour because of a hung parliament, unpopular government and feeling that a rising cost of living is squeezing household budgets into uncomfortable contortions. Some industries, notably retailing and manufacturing, are undeniably struggling.

Others, especially mining and its suppliers, are booming. Industries with big IT requirements, such as financial services, are doing alright.

This political and economic cocktail, plus declining computer studies enrolments that slow the flow of new workers, means Australia needs skilled IT people. The nation also needs skilled people in many other fields, but has in recent decades been very picky when choosing permanent immigrants.

Enter the “457 visa”, a class of visa reserved for skilled migrants who work in Australia for a few years without settling here. Pathways from 457 status to permanent residence do exist, but the purpose of the visa is access to skills, not immigration.

The information technology industry has long been a user of 457s. There’s only so many skilled IT people on the planet and the 457 has been a way for Australia to get some of them here for a while. Of the 105,330 457 holders were in Australia as of January 31st 2013 (an increase of 22.4 per cent over the 2012 number, data in this PDF), 9.3 per cent worked in IT or telecoms, with another eight per cent in “professional, scientific and technical” occupations.

Decent wages (an Australian dollar is worth more than the US dollar and at $AUD1.40 to £1.00 has seldom been better-valued compared to the pound) and a famously good climate and lifestyle have meant local employers have seldom struggled to find workers from other shores.

Last week, however, the incumbent Labor government (UK readers can consider it a clone of the British Labour party, US readers must imagine an entity to the left of the Democrats and akin to European Social Democrats) declared 457 visa-holders are stealing jobs from locals. With only “around 100” instances in which 457 visa-holders or employers have found themselves in trouble for 457-related dealings, the claim looked hard to sustain. Throw in the fact that Prime Minister Gillard’s own communications adviser came to Australia on a 457 and the assertion looked downright flimsy.

The reason 457 visas became an issue is that a deeply unpopular government used them to appease key supporters in the trade union movement, while also finding another way to talk about protecting Australia’s prosperity.

But there seems little practical action to follow the noise, with increased vigilance suggested rather than detailed.

But when mud gets thrown from the top, it sticks to someone on the way down.

Employers of imported IT folk may not care about the political climate and persist in using 457s to fill gaps on their rosters. Or CEOs and HR managers may decide to keep the can of worms closed and leave 457s alone for a while.

Either way, Reg readers contemplating a stint down under will at the very least find that arriving here on a 457 will mean they’ve got a big target painted on their backs the moment they arrive. And that’s before the flint-eyed Aussie cynics in the office try to figure out if the new Bruce/Sheila really knows what they're talking about. ®

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