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Australia's move to restrict migrant intake reflects broader global trend

Australia's move to restrict migrant intake reflects broader global trend

2017-04-19, guardian

The government’s abolition of the primary visa for foreign workers coincides with a US plan to overhaul its temporary skilled migration program and reports New Zealand is set to ‘control’ its immigration ‘mix’. The Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has moved to restrict skilled migration into the country, announcing the abolition of the controversial 457 visa program.

Despite its success in attracting needed skilled workers to Australia (in many regional and rural areas the most common 457 visa holders are nurses and doctors), the 457 program had become acutely politically sensitive, with consistent claims the scheme was being used to exploit lower-skilled foreign workers, who risk deportation if they complain about working conditions, and allegations that foreign workers were being preferenced over Australian nationals.

A growing chorus of conservative politicians in Australia, including within the ruling Liberal-National coalition – have called for a drastic reduction of immigration to Australia, citing a priority for jobs for citizens, and easing pressure on house prices, particularly in Sydney, where prices grew by nearly 20% last year. Turnbull’s abolition of the 457 visa program – to be replaced by another temporary skilled migration visa that appears, prima facie, similar in structure but more limited in scope – follows a Senate inquiry last year which labelled Australia’s illegal and exploitative treatment of foreign workers a “national disgrace”. “Australians must have priority for Australian jobs – so we’re abolishing the [class] 457 visas, the visas that bring temporary foreign workers into our country,” Turnbull said in announcing the change.

“We’ll no longer let 457 visas be passports to jobs that could and should go to Australians.” 

That rhetoric was tempered, however, with: “It’s important that businesses still get access to the skills they need to grow and invest. So the 457 visa will be replaced by a new temporary visa specifically designed to recruit the best and the brightest in the national interest.” But Australia’s move to tighten migration is also part of a broader global – in particular anglophone – trend. The Trump administration has announced it will overhaul the US’s H-1B temporary skilled migration program, while the UK’s vote to leave the European Union was motivated, in significant part, by a desire to restrict migration into that country. Australia’s neighbour, New Zealand, is reportedly set to announce changes to its immigration program on Wednesday, including measures to “control the flows and get the mix right”.

For more than a decade, the 457 visa has been the most commonly used visa for Australian, or foreign, employers to bring skilled workers into Australia temporarily, however the program still represents less than 1% of Australia’s labour market. The 457 visa was introduced by the conservative Liberal party prime minister John Howard in 1996, with the aim of attracting skilled workers to Australia, and as part of a broader movement in Australia’s migration program towards preferencing skilled migration over family reunion. The four-year visa was designed to fill job vacancies which were difficult to fill with Australian workers. The government maintains a list of desired skilled occupations, but there has been criticism from both sides of politics in recent years that the list has become too broad. 

The current consolidated skilled occupation list has more than 650 occupations including actuary, cartographer, teacher, GP, motor mechanic, bricklayer, gym manager, zookeeper, bed and breakfast operator, goat farmer and journalist. In December, the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, ordered a review of the list “to ensure it better reflects genuine labour market needs”. Late Monday, the government released a list of 216 occupations that will no longer be eligible for skilled migration into Australia. Last financial year, the largest number of 457 visas was given to cooks. But thousands of 457 visas are also granted to critical professions: in many regional and rural areas, the largest proportion were given to nurses or doctors.

457 Visa Abolished

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