After Easter, the Prime Minister announced major changes to the temporary work visa known as the 457. The changes will take place in various stages between now and March 2018. There are several significant changes which mean that for a number of occupations, the pathway to a permanent visa sponsored by an employer will be closed.
This means that a number of people will only be able to get a temporary work visa for two years, and a further two year period after that only. It is the latest in a range of changes to immigration that have seen Australia change from being a country of permanent migration, to one of permanent and temporary migration.
This trend was well analysed by journalist and writer Peter Mares in his very readable 2016 book, Not Quite Australian. Mares noted that historically, permanent residence was the usual pathway, then leading to citizenship. It meant that you could migrate to Australia, and then eventually fully participate in the Australian community as a citizen.
Mares outlines the various stages in changes to migration from being permanent, to more often a two stage process, which he describes as 'try before you buy'. In fact, it is a trial by Australia of the potential migrant, and by the migrant of Australia.
This became more common in the late 1990s and from around 2000, with large numbers of overseas students arriving and the introduction of the 457 visa by the Howard Government in 1996. For a number of students, studying in Australia was the pathway to permanent migration. This pathway became bogged down, with large numbers of cooks and hairdressers waiting years for their cases to be decided.
Then it was a two stage process for the partner visa — two years as a temporary partner visa, then a permanent visa if the relationship was still ongoing. Protection visas also consisted of a two stage process, with the initial version of the Temporary Protection Visa in 1999 being a three year visa only, with the chance of obtaining a permanent visa thereafter, if you still met the strict refugee criteria.
The 457 visa has faced much criticism in the press, some of it deserved, especially in cases of abuse and underpayment of workers, although the actual extent of such cases is very hard to ascertain.
The 457 visa is also commonly used for doctors in various health services both public and private, accountants in small and large firms, engineers, and IT specialists in the many growing occupations in that industry. Stories of underpayment were more common in in the hospitality industry.
"More people are living temporarily in Australia, working, paying tax, but not able to fully participate in the Australian community: taxation without representation."
The changes announced this week will make a complex system more complex. Already there are a number of checks and balances within the system, a number introduced under Labor. Some, such as labour market testing, may be less strictly enforced, but this is one of the changes proposed. English language levels will also be raised. This is assessed by your passport (e.g. UK, New Zealand, USA, Canada, Ireland) or an English test like the IELTS or OET.
Any administrative system will have abuses and if you try to eliminate all abuses, you end up with a system so complex or tight that it can become unworkable. Systems need to maintain a level of flexibility, for the hard or messy case. It is not clear whether there will be enough flexibility in the new system.
The occupation list is quite old, going back to the Bureau of Statistics list which was released in 2006, and has had some minor adjustments since. Having a strict list is a cumbersome tool, but easier to assess by Immigration. You are either on the list or not. It can be a challenge to fit new jobs into the list. So 'robotic engineer' is not there, you need to be an 'electronic engineer'.
A point of note is the tortuous use of language in the area. The 457 visa will be replaced next March by a new visa called a Temporary Skills Shortage (TSS) visa. The TSS visa will have two streams, one for two years only, and one for four years. What stream you are in depends on your occupation.
The old Skilled Occupation List (SOL) is to be replaced by the more cumbersomely titled Medium and Long-term Strategic Skills List ( MLTSSL). This will be the pathway to a four year TSS visa and maybe permanent residence after three years. Currently the pathway is two years on a 457 visa to permanent employer sponsored visa.
The other list, which had a much larger number of occupations than the SOL, was known as the Consolidated Skilled Occupation List (CSOL). It will now be called the Short-term Skilled Occupations List (STSOL). Those with occupations on the STSOL will be eligible for a two year visa, with one chance for another two years, but no pathway to permanent sponsorship. 216 occupations will be removed from the lists, leaving 435 occupations. The most commonly used occupations are really not affected, so it may be that nearly 90,000 visas will still be issued, but they will be for the new TSS visa, not the old 457 visa.
Temporary visas exist still for visitors, students and for some refugees, including the Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) and the Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV). The TPV is three years only, with no pathway to permanent visas, the SHEV is five years with a limited pathway to other visas provided to work or study in certain regional areas for 42 months.
Still to come will be the new temporary parent visas. Already there is the temporary contributory parent visa which can lead to a permanent visa, but it costs around $50,000 per person. New parent visas, as yet of undisclosed cost, will be temporary only. Whether the high cost of the contributory parent visa goes up further is still to be seen.
More people are living temporarily in Australia, working, paying tax, but not able to fully participate in the Australian community: taxation without representation. Some have access to Medicare through the shared relationships with national health schemes in some European countries and the UK. Others need to maintain private health insurance for their time here.
Maybe for some, a 12 month working holiday is enough. However, if you are here for four or so years, and maybe with a family, you may want more security in your residence. Whether this is possible will depend on your occupation. Other countries have long had 'guest worker schemes', but part of the success of migration in Australia has been for people who come here and see a future for themselves and their family as fully part of the Australian community.
Clearly the increasing number of people on some type of temporary visa is now well established as a feature of migration. Whether it creates an underclass of people who can only work, but cannot be fully involved, is still to be seen.
Kerry Murphy is a partner with the specialist immigration law firm D'Ambra Murphy Lawyers and member of the board of the IARC .