Australia plans to relax entry for foreign workers

Australia is reviewing its skilled migration programme to make it easier for foreign workers to enter the country.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government has billed the review as the biggest re-examination of skilled migration in 25 years. Abbott, who faces a task of putting the sluggish economy back onto a sustainable growth course after commodity prices tanked, wants to cut red tape and give companies more flexibility to grow and compete for talent.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection released its recommendations in December and among its proposals is a short-term mobility visa, which would allow specialised staff to work in Australia for up to a year without a 457 skilled migration visa. The current 457 visa imposes stricter entry requirements including English language tests. Further, employers are required to demonstrate they have looked for local workers before giving jobs to employees from overseas. A government paper said the visa would allow companies to hire foreign workers “to complete specialised work which may include intra-company transfers and foreign correspondents.” Visa holders would be allowed to apply subsequently for visas such as permanent work visas.

The recommendations also include a “Permanent Independent Tested” visa that would allow highly skilled individuals to apply independently for permanent residence to work in Australia. Research is also being carried out on whether a points-based framework could be used to attract non-citizens who have an internationally recognised record of exceptional and outstanding achievement in a profession, the arts, sport or academia and research, according to the government paper.

The public submission of comments closed at the end of January. The government is expected to make further statements about the changes in the coming months. The review is divided into three phases. Phase 1 is development phase and includes conducting consultative forums in various cities. Phase 2 is refinement and the final phase is implementation.

With regards to changes to the 457 scheme, the government has said it will:

• streamline the processing of sponsorship, nomination and visa application to reward low risk applicants and refocus compliance and monitoring activities on high risk applicants;

• increase the sponsorship approval period from 12 to 18 months for start-up businesses, to give start-ups more time to make their businesses sustainable;

• provide greater flexibility in relation to English language testing and skill requirements for 457 applicants, to ensure that the standards required are appropriate for the industries and occupations being sought; and

• retain the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold at $53,900, ahead of a review within the next two years.

Separate plans are also in place to expand and improve the Significant Investor Visa (SIV) scheme. At present, SIVs are available for applicants having an eligible investment in Australia of A$5 million, for a minimum of four years. There are plans to introduced a Premium Investor Visa Programme.

“The government will reform the programme to encourage more high net worth individuals to make Australia home and to leverage and better direct additional foreign investment, while maintaining safeguards to ensure the migration programme is not misused”, according to a statement.

While businesses have welcomed Abbot’s migration review, unions have been critical of the potential changes. Many have questioned the rationale for such a policy when the unemployment rate is hovering around its highest level for more than 12 years. Australia’s unemployment rate was 6.3% in February, slightly lower than 6.4% in January.