Australia will fast-track 457 visa applications for employers who use the system without incident, and will punish those financially who exploit the system. Previously, if an employer abused the system they were only barred from using it.
The changes were unveiled by new Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews on 05 February, and come after moves by former immigration minister Amanda Vanstone to increase oversight of the scheme after it was found that audits for compliancy had dropped.
The crackdown is a sign that the new minister is keen to address criticism of the so-called 457 visa scheme, which Labour and the unions have claimed needs greater regulation. "The message is that this is a process by which people can obtain skilled labor in Australia but it's not to be abused," Andrews said.
"There are some cowboys out there and their behavior is not acceptable and I intend to crack down on them. It will cover anybody who is a sponsor of a person under one of these visas."
Several high-profile cases made the news last year in which the visa system and some immigrants were seriously abused, resulting in a Parliamentary review of the specific subclass 457 and related policies and legislation.
Demand for temporary foreign workers grew by 44.5% over the previous year, according to the latest immigration department figures. The annual government report on immigration statistics published last month shows that 39,530 skilled immigrants came to Australia during 2005-06. One in five of those remain in Australia permanently.
The decision to toughen up the program follows a series of employer forums held by Mr. Andrews in Sydney and Melbourne last week.
According to the minister, employers who play by the rules will eventually be given access to a streamlined process that can reduce application times to a few weeks from "an extended period of months."
"If you do the right thing you are going to be rewarded but if you do the wrong thing we're going to jump on you," Andrews said.
"If someone who has been using 457 visas for a number of years has done all the right things and has a good track record then what I would look to do for them is to streamline the administration of the process."
Two reviews into the temporary skilled migration regime were begun following huge increases in the program's intake, as well as criticism that unscrupulous employers were exploiting foreign workers.
A wide-reaching review of the scheme by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) was due to be delivered to relevant federal, state and territory ministers in December. However, the deadline for the COAG review has been extended after requests from state governments for more time to negotiate with stakeholders.
Mr. Andrews said the introduction of penalties and favored status went "further than what's being talked about at COAG at the moment." He added: "But it's something that I believe ought to be done."
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