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Published 19 March 2013 06:56, Updated 20 March 2013 07:28
Consult Australia’s Megan Motto says any specific problems with the 457 visa program should not detract from its overall success. Photo: Tomasz Machnik
The highly politicised debate about the use of 457 visas for skilled temporary workers may be moving into fact from rhetoric with a government proposal to give Fair Work Ombudsman staff the ability to monitor and enforce compliance with 457 visa conditions.
Planned reforms to laws governing the labour watchdog would allow its staff to ensure foreign workers were employed in the right jobs and were receiving market salary rates, Immigration and Citizenship Minister Brendan O’Connor and Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten said in a joint statement.
“Employers who do the right thing have nothing to fear from this change and there will be no additional compliance burden or red tape for them,” they said.
The row over 457 visas has drawn a fierce response from business and migration analysts. Prime Minister Julia Gillard had likened the program – designed to meet short-term skills shortages in industries as they arise – to asylum seekers, with talk of wanting “to stop foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back”.
The fierce political invective has made prosecution of abuses of the visa system, in industries such as construction and IT, where it has been said to occur, difficult.
There was some indication that Monday’s announcement gave both sides a chance to cool their combative stance. Engineering lobby group Consult Australia welcomed the greater powers for the ombudsman’s office.
“A focus on risk-based enforcement is a good thing, but recent politicised debate over the value of the program has simply created uncertainty for employers, potential skilled migrants and companies wanting to do business in Australia,” Consult Australia chief executive Megan Motto said. “Any misuse of the program should be dealt with, but isolated instances should not detract from its success.”
“The very small number of employers who abuse the 457 visa system should face the appropriate sanctions,”Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said. “As such the announcement ... that Fair Work Ombudsman staff would monitor employers of 457 visa holders would, if made in isolation, appear reasonable.”
The announcement, however, came a day after Labor Party national vice-president Tony Sheldon accused some employers of “trafficking” people in to exploit them and that for some workers, the visa was “a form of slavery”.
Seen in this light, the announcement was not an olive branch, an official at one lobby group said.
“It’s keeping the rhetoric on fire,” he said. “It’s keeping the 457 fire burning every day.”