14 July 2006

Push to bring more semi-skilled workers to Australia

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The Australian newspaper is reporting that foreign truck drivers and farmhands could be brought to Australia as part of an overhaul of the guest-worker program designed to address chronic labour shortages.

The Immigration Department is reviewing the system of classifying occupations covered by the skilled migration program and is under pressure from employer groups to open the program to semi-skilled workers.

The new classification proposals are set to re-ignite the debate on whether Australia is importing unskilled workers.

The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs maintained yesterday that Australia did not operate an unskilled guest-worker program, but conceded there was pressure for such a scheme from industry.

Employer groups and migration agents are hoping that more categories of occupations - from truck drivers to racetrack riders - will be listed in a new Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations drawn up by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and scheduled for release in September.

It will replace the current Australian Standard Classification of Occupations, which is used by immigration authorities to measure whether a foreign worker has sufficient skills to qualify for a temporary migration 457 visa.

A foreign applicant must meet one of four skills levels listed by ASCO. The existing list excludes many semi-skilled workers that employers say are in short supply, including abattoir workers and general farm hands.

An Immigration Department spokesman said the department was examining the draft of the new ANZCO closely, but it was premature to draw any conclusions about its impact.

The push comes after job vacancies jumped by a stronger-than-expected 7.3 per cent in the three months to May to a record high of 155,000, despite unemployment running at 521,000.

Opposition Leader Kim Beazley said he was not opposed to proper migration, but any attempt to bring in workers to drive down wages or take the jobs of Australian workers was "not on".

A spokesman said Labor would oppose any move by bosses to use the new industrial relations laws to remove existing staff and fill the positions with foreign workers.

"The Labor Party takes the use of the temporary migration visas to drive down wages very seriously," the spokesman said.

Experienced truck drivers are not eligible to be brought to Australia under a 457 visa status, despite an acute shortage of drivers. But Australia's biggest road freight operator, Toll Holdings, has already signalled it wants to import foreign workers as a short-term solution.

The Immigration Department has confirmed that it is negotiating with the Australian Trucking Association over a proposal to bring qualified heavy truck drivers and diesel mechanics to Australia on a temporary basis.

They would enter Australia as 457 visa holders under the terms of a special labour agreement. Other industries have made similar calls for a widening of categories in the guest-worker intake.

Racing Victoria spokesman Chris Watson said the industry had already imported 50 Asian track riders under an agreement negotiated through the departments of Immigration and Employment and Workplace Relations.

He said the racing industry was suffering a shortage of track riders and stable hands in several states, and had formally requested a widening of skills categories in the new ANSCO to include riders. The categories currently were very limited, he said.

The labour agreements to bring in otherwise ineligible workers on 457 visas may partly account for the steep rise in visas issued in the past four years.

The total intake has risen from 40,633 in 2003-04 to 58,140 in the first 10 months of 2005-06. The figures include accompanying spouses and children.

Migration Institute of Australia president Dick Glazbrook said the industry was looking forward to a wider range of occupations for which foreign workers might qualify.

Migration agents are currently restricted in the assistance they can offer employers due to the status of the current ASCO guide, Mr Glazbrook said.

"It is 10 years old and terribly outdated, and the occupation categories were largely compiled in the late 1980s. It's difficult for employers working in new trades areas," he said.

Mr Glazbrook said rural industries were crying out for labour. He said he knew of potato farmers who urgently needed potato graders and packers, but who could not find an appropriate skills level for them.

They could only come into the country if they fitted the category of horticulturist.

Skilled migration was to have been debated at tomorrow's Council of Australian Governments meeting, but the states have lobbied to postpone the discussion fearing a political trap from the federal Government.

David Jolly, a former Immigration Department state head and now manager of Perth-based Australian Visas and Migration Services, said Western Australia alone had projects worth $90 billion requiring skilled and semi-skilled labour. He said an increase in overseas workers was inevitable.

Marielle Sengers, from The Netherlands, said she walked into a job in Perth after waiting 18 months to get a working visa.

The 34-year-old receptionist said getting the visa was "very involved and took about 18 months ... getting the job was so easy, I just walked in and showed my CV," she said.

Ms Sengers did not qualify for the skilled migration scheme being used to ease the chronic shortage of tradespeople in Western Australia.

Perth's unemployment rate is a record low 3.5 per cent and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry has acknowledged the state's skills shortage had become a general labour shortage affecting employers in a range of industries.

Ms Sengers's employer, Globe Backpackers owner Santos Ezcaray, said he was delighted by the prospect of the skilled migration scheme being broadened.

He had experienced great difficulty finding permanent staff.

He said some of his staff were backpackers on working holiday visas but they stayed for a maximum of three months.

"You end up retraining people every couple of months, it gets expensive no question," he said.

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