The worrying state of the Australian 457 visa row

- Posted in Australia by Dominicon 07 March 2013

457 visa

The 457 visa program is mostly
used for temporary workers on
construction and mining projects.

The Australian government announced last month that they would be tightening the rules surrounding its temporary worker program - the 457 visa - triggering an ongoing row that is quickly becoming embittered.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a reshuffling of her Cabinet earlier this year and one of her most notable changes - handing Victorian politician Brendan O'Connor the Australian immigration portfolio - has already made headlines.

One of Mr O'Connor's first acts was to announce a tightening of the 457 visa program, claiming the system was open to 'rorting' - abuse of the system. The 457 visa program is intended to allow Australian employers to bring in overseas workers, but only when local labour is unavailable.

Why does the system need changing?

Mr O'Connor, along with several workers' unions, claims that the system is used by unscrupulous employers to undercut local labour.

The minister claimed employers were bypassing the system's rules by hiring unskilled workers from overseas in high paid, senior positions and then demoting them on arrival. The minister cited cases of 'project administrators' in Western Australia being brought in to work as security guards.

The immigration minister's announcement have triggered a row that quickly reached both Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott, who accused each other of inciting fear and even xenophobia against foreign workers.

Yesterday the Treasurer Wayne Swan weighed into the debate:

"I'm frequently approached in my electorate by people who I know to be quite well qualified, hard working Australians, who are looking to get jobs in certain sectors," he said.

"My summation of this is that there is a bit of a problem in parts of the mining sector, where Australians are not necessarily getting a look in first as they should, where they are appropriately qualified and willing and able to work."

The mining and construction industries have been at the centre of the debate due to their rapid expansions and the remote nature of the projects but Mr Swan was quick to add 'it’s not only the mining sector where this is an issue'.

Why are people defending the program?

However, there are plenty of voices defending the program; Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett has said his state's AU$237 billion (£162 billion) economy is dependent on the temporary overseas workers - known as Fly-in Fly-out (FiFo).

"FiFo workers are modern day heroes. They do separate from their families, they do put up with some loss of amenity, they work in harsh conditions, for long hours, doing exciting work," said the premier.

"They are building this state and building this nation...these are the modern day heroes of the economic development of Australia.

"They deserve more respect, and not to be treated like some scourge of the Earth."

A spiralling debate

Pauline Hanson made her name
in the 1990s as a strong opponent
of Australian immigration.

Mr O'Connor himself has admitted that tracking down and prosecuting 'rorting' is difficult due to the processes involved and the government's critics have pointed to an almost complete lack in prosecutions associated with rorting in the last few years - just one prosecution.

The federal opposition, along with other detractors, have used this to accuse the government of xenophobia and inciting divisiveness in communities with a large immigrant presence.

While Mr O'Connor's changes were likely quite well intentioned - the government have repeatedly stated they are open to foreign workers in Australia who follow the rules - the debate it has triggered has already begun to raise tensions.

Over 1,000 workers in Melbourne marched through the city's Central Business District today, protesting against the 457 visa program by chanting 'local labour, local jobs'.

Perhaps even more disquieting though has been the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson.

Ms Hanson, who led the One Nation party in the mid 1990s with her strong, anti-immigration rhetoric, has stated she intends to run in this September's election due to the 457 visa situation.

"I think [the 457 visa] is a back door for immigration, I think a big investigation needs to be done," said Ms Hanson, who has not stated in what capacity she intends to run for.

"It stinks to me. I wouldn't be surprised if they're using this to bring people into the country.

"I just don't think that there are people there who really understand how Australians are feeling. I don't think there is a representation for our culture, our way of life, our standard of living."

- Dominic Ladden-Powell is the Online Editor for the Australian Visa Bureau.