Australia's 457 visa scheme under government inquiry

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Australia's premium skilled foreign-worker visa scheme (commonly referred to as the 457 visa) has caused some controversy this year, and the federal government is now launching a formal inquiry into it. The 457 visa scheme is a temporary work visa that can allow a foreign-born worker into Australia for up to four years.

The inquiry will examine eligibility requirements and monitoring, enforcement and reporting arrangements for people on 457 visas, according to Liberal MP Don Randall. The controversy concerns the claims of companies using the scheme to undercut Australian wages.

"Temporary skilled migrants are vital to Australia's ongoing prosperity," Mr. Randall said. "There is a basic level of pay of $41,800 on general category."

"If people are not being paid that level or if they're paid that level only or if they're not being paid their overtime after 38 hours that should be addressed."

He says about 20,000 people arrived in Western Australia on 457 visas last year. The pay scale changes by region and can be as low as $38,000 AUD in more remote locations.

Mr. Randall says the committee wants to know how it can address any concerns held by employers or workers.

"The committee therefore wants to see if the current arrangements for temporary business visas are functioning efficiently or need to be improved."

Several high-profile cases of guest workers being swindled and underpaid by companies employing foreign workers have made the news this year. Labor unions are also concerned that the 457 scheme is being used to force lower wages upon Australian citizens and other permanent residents already in the country.

"[The] Labor [Party] recognizes the need for temporary work visas, but has serious concerns with the way the Howard Government is handling the 457 visa," the Shadow Minister for Immigration, Tony Burke, said on 05 September in a press release. "Reports by well respected analysts back up Labor's claim that this visa is being used in a way that is denying Australians working opportunities."

Prime Minister John Howard's official government position is that these visas are used to fill positions in labor spheres where there is a shortage of available locally skilled workers. At the beginning of September this year, the government blocked an inquiry into the 457 scheme, as it had several times during the year.

In October a Senate estimates hearing was held in which it was reported that the Immigration Department was investigating 190 companies over possible breaches of the 457 visa scheme.

The governments Immigration Minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone is quoted as saying on 22 November that "there can't be much wrong with this visa."

Now, however, on 13 December MP Don Randall announced that an inquiry by the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Migration will investigate adequacy of the eligibility requirements for 457 visas, as well as other enforcement aspects of how employers are obeying the letter and spirit of the scheme.

This week, there have been calls to bring in workers without employers having to pay for their return flight, a key aspect of how the scheme has operated up until now. Other relaxation of the rules is being sought by Australian industry, claiming that they are desperate for workers immediately.

"While Australia needs a system of temporary work visas, the interaction with the new industrial relations laws has left this system open to abuse," the Shadow Minister for Immigration, Integration and Citizenship, Tony Burke commented this week when the inquiry was announced.

The ACTU (one of Australia's major trade unions) called for an inquiry into the skilled migration visas in July this year.

Public submissions will be received until February 2, 2007, with public hearings to begin from mid-February.


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