Extensions being made to the much-maligned 457 temporary skilled migrant visas have cleared Senate Estimates with little examination of their ethical consequences or detail of how future breaches will be avoided. The 457 visas are work visas which allow companies to sponsor overseas workers to fill positions.
The Gillard Government, responding to recommendations made by the National Resources Sector Employment Taskforce in July last year, is introducing the Enterprise Migration Agreements (EMA) scheme, a tailor-made temporary skilled migration program specifically designed to serve the ongoing labour needs of the resource and mining sectors.
EMAs will be available to "mega projects" with more than $2 billion capital and a peak workforce of 1500. The Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs heard yesterday that 13 projects are already likely to qualify, with an additional 21 being considered for feasibility. Not many projects, in other words, will be able to make special arrangements for the employment of overseas workers.
No details were given as to the specific nature of the projects, but the Standing Committee heard that the resource sector had lobbied the figure down from $10 billion. Representatives of the sector have also indicated their desire for a lower threshold in order to further broaden the reach of the scheme.
Skilled and semi-skilled migrants brought to Australia under an EMA are to be employed on 457 visas. The number of skilled workers who can be employed in this way will not be capped — so long as the sponsoring business meets their legal obligations under the Worker Protection Act 2009 and demonstrates "effective and ongoing local recruitment efforts".
Semi-skilled or "subtrade" worker numbers will be capped under the EMA, and businesses will be required to demonstrate why they are unable to source subtrade workers locally.
The scheme also sets requirements for investment in local training and encourages projects to reduce their reliance on foreign labour, and mandates either a 2 per cent payroll contribution to an industry training fund or a 1 per cent contribution to local training.
However, the Standing Committee heard little in the way of specifics as to how the scheme would avoid the endemic exploitation for which the system has been notorious in the past.
Under questioning from Senator Mark Furner (ALP), Kruno Kukoc, the first assistant secretary for DIAC’s migration and visa policy division assured the Standing Committee that consultation over the scheme had been broad and that "even during the development of the EMA concept, we did engage into a range of consultation with key union bodies". He wasn’t asked for specifics.
When asked by Furner what concrete protections were in place, Kukoc cited the Worker Protection Act 2009 that governs all 457 visas and indicated that a "full spectrum of protection" including litigation, inspection powers and infringement notices was in place.
He admitted that ultimately the "employer will have responsibility over the contract … the project owner carries a responsibility." He noted specifically that if a business holding an EMA infringes, it may "trigger a renegotiation of the EMA".
A question from Furner on whether DIAC requires specific ethics inquiries did not receive a substantive answer — and it was not pursued.
Kukoc was also questioned by Bob Brown over the granting of 27 four-year 457 visas to Ta Ann, a wood processing company from Malaysia based in Tasmania’s Huon district.
When asked by Brown about the local economic conditions that justified the granting of visas to four foreign wood machinists over Tasmanian workers, Kukoc replied there was "no economic reason to opt for a 457 visa if there is a local worker". Brown disagreed. He claimed Kukoc was making a "value judgement", and asked "what would have been required of Ta Ann to show they had taken due diligence [in sourcing local labour]?"
The reply? "Senator, for 457 skilled workers the legislation doesn’t require formal labor market testing, we don’t require employers to go through a formalised testing… the key concept in the new legislation is the concept of market rates and the equalised terms of employment".
Brown kept on asking questions about housing arrangements for the 457 workers, whether they had access to family, culture and entertainment, and whether the department assessed working conditions of workers employed by parent companies overseas before granting visas. He asked whether foreign workers might be induced to work harder or longer hours as a result of more isolated conditions
Kukoc said these responsibilities lay with employers under 457 contracts, and the "key obligation is to ensure the same working arrangements … similar or equal to an Australian worker."
Brown and Tasmanian Liberal Senator Guy Barnett both made reference to a Huon town hall meeting on Saturday. Brown alleged Malaysian Ta Ann workers were forced to attend as a "presence" for the company.
Barnett did not agree. He asked Kukoc whether he understood "that it would be completely reasonable and fair [for the workers]to attend a meeting on the future of their company being threatened?" He also asked whether Kukoc was aware of "Green and other policies" designed to "kill off the forest industry" — which earned him a reproach from Minister Kim Carr, acting for DIAC.
Over the last year, 457 visa lodging rates have increased by 40 per cent.
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