A misunderstanding: temporary visas in Australia

In today’s edition of Crikey, there was a substantial piece on skilled and student migration. Above all, I welcome interest in this area. There is a significant lack of media coverage of these policies, except for in periods of hysteria (see the 457 visa debate) or when cases of migrant exploitation arise. The author and Crikey are to be congratulated for taking the time to write about these issues.

However there are a few things in the Crikey piece that should be addressed.

“Workers with 457 visas have to continue to work in the same position at the company for two years before they can apply for permanent residency”.

This statement is wrong. Anyone is free to apply for permanent residency, however the requirements are different for those who have held a 457 visa with their employer for the past two years. This is an important distinction. The point the article is articulating, that 457 visa holders often feel beholden to their employer, is definitely worth making. But migrants do have the opportunity to apply for a permanent sponsored visa.

Under the Employer Nomination Scheme (permanent employer-sponsored visas), there are two streams. One is the ‘Temporary Residency’ stream, which 457 visa holders can apply for. This is an easier visa to satisfy than the ‘Direct Entry’ stream. The main differences are higher English language and skill level barriers for the Direct Entry stream. Unfortunately the Department does not release statistics that break down the Employer Nomination Scheme so it’s hard to say one way or another which is more popular.

Personally, I think the requirement to work two years with the same employer is an odious one that forces people into situations they may not want to be. This policy should be revised to make it that two years on a 457 visa with any employer should satisfy entry to the ‘temporary residency’ stream.

“New tightened regulations are a significant hurdle for those who want 457 visas.”

The problem with this sentence is that tightened regulations are largely unknown despite the legislation being passed in June. Labour market testing, where the employer must advertise the positions for Australian workers, has not yet been detailed (apparently it will be introduced in November). There are also a handful of other small regulatory changes however personally, even as a staunch immigration advocate, I wouldn’t consider the new regulations a “significant hurdle” until the full details are released. I don’t agree with the language behind the recent batch of reform, yet I feel they will have relatively minimal impact on the number of visas approved. Approximately 80-85% of visas are granted to larger employers who have in-house migration lawyers or pay consultants. Fees will increase, but the economy drives the 457 program, not tinkering with regulations. The rhetoric from business groups is largely self-interested (not that this excuses other parties in the debate).

“In 2011-2012 a whopping 30,978 of permanent residence visas were given to former student visa holders. However, with changes to the skilled occupation list, it is becoming more difficult to get a permanent visa off the back of a student visa.”

This statement isn’t necessary incorrect but I feel it’s misleading. Earlier in the article, the author says, “asylum seekers make up just 7% of the nearly 200,000 people who come to Australia each year under its combined migration and humanitarian program.” Why are 14,000 asylum seekers described as “just” while 30,978 former students are described as “whopping”? This could easily have been, ‘In 2011-12 only 14% of the Australian migration program was made up of former student visa holders”.

Further, there were major changes to the skilled occupation list however this was in 2010 and 2011, a time when the number of students was ‘whopping’. In the past couple of years there has been very little change. Other changes, such as the introduction of a type of priority processing based on the number of points a migrant earns, have had an impact but this was not due to the skilled occupation list.

Finally, a new type of visa has been promoted for students, the ‘post-study work visa’. This visa gives international students a defined period of time (between two and four years) to work for any employer. This is an opportunity to gain Australian work experience in a designated skilled occupations from which they have graduated. Afterwards, applying for a permanent visa, either with the employer or through the points-test, is significantly easier. Not every student in Australia will be eligible for these visas due to transitional arrangements but all future students will have access if their degrees comply with regulations (which most will if they are from an established university). None of this context is added despite being a major overhaul of the student-migration pathway.

(And a technical note; the 200,000 number is not the number of people who come to Australia, but the number of people who are granted permanent visas. With the increase in onshore visa grants, there is a significant difference)

“With a background in humanities, aid and policy, Louise’s talents aren’t in demand. She spent nearly $30,000 in school fees here; however, she is not eligible for any social services. “I’m working, I pay tax, I’m not eligible for Medicare. I guess you could argue I’m taking a job away from an Australian, but …””

I have little doubt that ‘Louise’ would be able to be sponsored by her employer if they really wanted to keep her and the position met other regulations (such as the salary floor). With a master’s degree and prior experience, she should easily be able to demonstrate she has the skills available to perform the relevant job. As discussed above, the labour market testing regime has yet to be introduced and in addition, it does not apply to permanent employer sponsored visas.

Further, while she as an individual from North America is not entitled to health care, some working holiday makers are. Citizens of UK, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, Republic of Ireland and New Zealand are entitled to Medicare through reciprocal healthcare arrangements. These nations make up a strong minority of total WHMs, demonstrating the more integrated relationship with those countries. Australia is unlikely to enter into a reciprocal arrangement with the US due to the US not having a public healthcare system (despite migrants in the US paying into Medicare and Medicaid, like migrants in Australia paying tax and medicare).

I’m not advocating one way or the other, just trying to provide some context around the situation migrants find themselves in. I believe there should be much broader coverage of Medicare for temporary migrants.

“Yet despite this, the number of working holiday visas grew 15.6% — to 222,992 visas — in 2011-2012.”

By outlining the requirements of the WHM (no more than 6 months with one employer and a maximum duration of two years only if regional work is undertaken for 88 days) then saying ‘despite this’, the piece misses the central point of migration. These visas are growing because of Australia’s place in the world, not because of the legislative framework. The Australian economy is booming relative to other developed nations. This is why the number of WHMs is growing rapidly. These are all young people (under 30) looking for opportunities to work and a chance to settle elsewhere, at least temporarily. By framing the debate around the regulatory framework of WHMs, the author places all the focus on the individual concerned despite the unknown of her circumstances relative to the standard migrant on a working holiday visa.

I don’t pretend public policy regulations around skilled, student and other temporary migration is easy. I imagine it’s one of the more complicated sets of regulation and legislation. This piece does an admirable attempt to educate on the potential situations young migrants seeking a better life can find themselves in. Yet it misses a few crucial points and some very important context.

Finally, this shows that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has a substantial job on it’s hands to better education journalists, other policy makers and the general public about the intricacies of various migration programs. Misinformation will have poor long term outcomes and may lead to further histrionics.

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