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Trades Hall, Chamber of Commerce spar over international workers’ visas

Monday, 20 July, 2015

Trades Hall and the Chamber of Commerce have sparred over proposals to tighten visa rules, with the impact on workers and the economy under contention.

An Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) proposal would see a cap on temporary working visas – but the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) is in firm opposition. The ACTU is Australia’s peak union body, while ACCI is an Australian peak business group.

Early May saw the ACTU lodge its submission to the Senate inquiry into temporary working visas, suggesting that Australia should cap its number of temporary working visas being granted. The Senate inquiry was established in March by Labor and the Greens to probe the 457 visa program.

Visa categories covered under the ACTU proposal include Temporary Work visas (subclass 457) and Working Holiday visas (subclass 417).

The ACCI said that would leave international students in Australia without a sponsor employer, and local Australians without a chance to travel overseas via a working holiday visa. However, the ACTU said its proposal would provide more chances for local Australians to enter the workforce.

According to the ACTU’s report, in 2014, about 40,000 more Australians found themselves unemployed partially due to the presence of 45,000 temporary visa holders in the labour market that year. Overall, the 1.2 million temporary visa holders made up 10% of the Australian workforce. The ACTU claims that the number has risen by nearly 50% from 2007 to 2014, and could rise to two million by 2020.

“There is no benefit to the current trend where we rely on international workers to fill alleged gaps in skills. We must create opportunities through investment and training to combat unemployment,” says ACTU President Ged Kearney.

She also mentions the fact that April 2015 is the 11th month national unemployment rate has been over 6%. “We need to focus on creating job opportunities for Australians…and we must limit the use of temporary visas to reflect genuine skills shortages,” she adds.

Kearney’s suggestion, however, has received wide criticism from the ACCI. The ACCI argues that a limitation on temporary working visas would make Australia less attractive to international backpackers and students.

Jenny Lambert, ACCI’s Director of Employment, Education and Training believes that “reducing the capacity of international students to undertake work would make Australia a less attractive place for students, undermining our $15 billion international education industry”.

In 2014, Australia added 589,860 more full-fee paying international students, mostly from China, India, Vietnam, Korea and Thailand. 27% of students at the University of Melbourne came from another country, with many of them choosing Australia for its 457 visa program, which allows international graduates to stay and work in Australia for up to four years.

The ACCI also argues that by limiting the number of working holiday (417) visas, Australians themselves will less likely be able to undertake working holidays overseas, as the 417 visas are part of reciprocal arrangements.

At the moment, citizens from only 19 countries are eligible for this type of visa, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Canada and a number of European nations. These temporary workers fill seasonal labour shortages in the tourism and agricultural sectors.

This safety of the temporary visa system has caused controversy, with the ACTU saying it leaves the potential for employers to exploit migrant workers.

This view is reflected in the ABC’s Four Corners report “Slaving Away”, in which young migrant workers, often with limited English, are subjected to “brutal working hours, degrading living conditions and the massive underpayment of wages”.

Kearney believes this will have future implications for the working holiday visa program. “We are creating a two-tier system with many temporary international workers having fewer rights than the rest of the workforce and this is unacceptable,” she argues.

Both sides are continuing media campaigns around the issue, and with a federal election looming next year, the debate is set to continue.

A technical issue saw the wrong draft of this article make its way to our website. We apologise for this issue, which has now been rectified.