The impact of 457 visas on work in this country has been huge. The scheme has undercut wages for hundreds of thousands of workers, been a risk to health and safety, and undermined a genuine commitment to skills and training across the board when Australia needs it most. But Malcolm Turnbull’s rebadging of the system will do nothing to address its shortfalls; whether it will prove as politically popular as the Prime Minister is hoping is doubtful.
Certainly, the tinkering that the Liberals have announced with much fanfare is designed to play to a certain demographic - purportedly tougher English language requirements and background security checks both nod reverently to would-be One Nation voters in the Liberal heartland – but the working Australians who have suffered most from the abuse of 457 visas won’t be so easily fooled.
Any 457 announcement that comes with the hearty endorsement of the business lobby is transparently not good news. Indeed, the business lobby appear remarkably well briefed, so well briefed one wonders if they might have written it themselves. One thing is clear – the Turnbull government didn’t talk to workers about this latest policy thought bubble.
What we know so far is this: the 457 visa program is not being scrapped, but is being replaced by two new visa categories with different names. Expect these new visas to get another plug in the budget under an attractive headline like the “Promoting Australian workforce innovation package” or the “Australia-first skills-gap prevention agenda”, likely to be favoured over the considerably more accurate but less sexy “undermining wages in healthcare, construction and hospitality scheme”.
We know that the visas will include mandatory labour market testing, as did 457 visas, but we do not yet know whether there is any plan to address employers’ routine methods of flouting this requirement by, for example, advertising jobs in obscure, low-circulation publications. Regardless, any introduction of genuine labour market testing is expressly forbidden under Free Trade Deals signed by the Liberals. In other words, we know that businesses will still be allowed to offer jobs to visa holders without ever providing the opportunity for Australian workers to apply.
The Government is making noises about training obligations, and the occupational categories under which visas can be granted, but we are missing precious detail about how skills and training shortages will be assessed. It is imperative that the Government has a plan to address the skills gap with training: we have over 1.5 million people in this country unemployed or underemployed. Without a strategic approach to training, governments will continually be forced to rely on haphazard visa changes to respond to skills gaps.
We do not yet know which occupations will qualify for the rebranded visa scheme, or what rationale will drive this process. It will be interesting if the free-marketeers in the Liberal Party will consider that the low rate of Australians applying for certain occupations is the market’s signal to employers that wages and safety conditions in these roles aren’t sufficient to attract local labour supply. Unlikely; liaises-faire only works one way.
The lack of detail surrounding this policy is perhaps indicative that its announcement was brought forward, before its obvious flaws could be ironed out. With Tony Abbott again lashing out over the weekend, and concern growing over the Government’s failure to show up to the national debate on housing affordability, the Prime Minister likely calculated that even a half-baked announce-able was better than nothing. I genuinely hope that Prime Minister Turnbull will be able to follow through with his rhetoric, and that Australian workers will hear something worth welcoming from this new visa policy.
But so far, it must be concluded that the Prime Minister is uninterested in genuine change to the 457 visa scheme. By opting once again for spin over substance, he is ignoring the very real exploitation of visa workers and denying his obligations to Australian workers. Australians don’t need another bureaucratic re-branding exercise – we need good government.
Luke Hilakari is the Secretary of Victorian Trades Hall Council - the voice of working Victorians.