Foreign worker changes raise the spectre of workplace rorts

The recent relaxation of subclass 457 visa rules has opened up new opportunities for some businesses, but reignited fears of potential workplace rorts.

In February, the cap on business nominations for skilled migrants imposed by the former Labor government was quietly lifted by the Abbott government and was quickly followed by a new review into the scheme.

Unions were quick to seize on the decision, saying the move would leave foreign workers vulnerable to exploitation and drive down wages and conditions for locals.

Under the change, businesses are able to employ more foreign workers than they had initially applied for. The Australian Industry Group says the change would help some businesses that are struggling to source highly skilled people.

“It’s major for a few people,” AiGroup’s Tony Melville said. He said the relaxation of the rules would most likely benefit larger operators like state governments looking for nurses, doctors and other health professionals.

Mr Melville said the change would not impact on smaller operators whom he said were usually deterred from using the scheme due to its cost. However, he warned the government was looking closely at operators that used the scheme to bring-in family members from overseas.

“Some smaller businesses are bringing in family members from overseas under the program. The government’s looking very closely at that just in case there’s any rorting involved,” he said.

Union leaders have argued the changes to the scheme have re-opened a loophole which allows Australian workers to be passed over in favour of 457 visa holders.

Employers may view 457 visa holders as a more reliable hire, because their residency status is directly tied to their employment contract.

Australian Workers Union assistant national secretary Scott McDine warned the government was “sneaking” through changes to undermine pay and conditions while Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy union assistant secretary, Dave Noonan, said foreign workers could be exploited. Opposition Immigration spokesman Richard Marles also warned the visa could become a “mechanism to replace Australian jobs”.

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard triggered a fierce political row over the visa category last year. During a visit to Western Sydney, Gillard said she wanted it tightened to “stop foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back”.

New conditions were subsequently imposed on employers requiring them to conduct labour market testing before resorting to 457 visa workers, and for a percentage of their total payroll to be spent on training local staff.

Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Michaelia Cash, announced an independent review into the 457 visa program on February 25. The review will examine the integrity of the visa scheme while removing any unnecessary red tape costs for businesses as part of the Coalition’s deregulation drive.

The review is headed by former public servant and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu partner, John Azarias. It includes Australian National University professor, Peter McDonald, immigration lawyer, Katie Maylon and Jenny Lambert from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The final review will be given to the Senator Cash by mid-year.

The number of primary 457 visa holders in Australia at the end of last year was 90,780. This was 8.3 per cent higher than the figure at the end of 2012.  However, the number of 457 visas granted in the first six months of the 2013-14 financial year was 27,330 or 23.9 per cent lower than the same period from the previous twelve months.

The largest occupation for primary subclass 457 visa grants in the six months to the end of December were for cooks, taking up 5.7 per cent of total primary grants.

The former Labor Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor last year claimed there had been in excess of 10,000 instances in which the visa class had been rorted. He later said this figure was an estimate.

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