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In a move that has shocked the IT industry, the Australian government will abolish the 457 visa programme that companies have been relying on to employ skilled overseas workers by March 2018.
In announcing the decision, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said the 457 visa scheme had lost its credibility and would be replaced by two temporary skills visas, which will be issued for two or four years, along with tighter regulations around visa holders who would like to take up permanent residency or citizenship later.
“The 457 visa will be abolished and replaced with a new temporary visa, underpinned by skills lists that are focused on critical skills shortages and more stringent conditions. We will no longer allow 457 visas to be passports to jobs that could and should go to Australians,” he said.
While there have been substantial cuts in the number of IT roles – from more than 600 to 183 – eligible for temporary skills visas, key tech jobs remain on the temporary skills visa list. These include chief information officers, network and systems engineers, developers and software testers.
For a while now, organisations in Australia have relied on 457 visas to plug critical skill shortages in growing areas such as cyber security, cloud and data analytics. At present, there are more than 9,000 IT professionals with 457 visas, representing under 10% of more than 95,000 visa holders.
Rob Fitzpatrick, CEO of the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), said the AIIA is working with members, universities and the government to address the skills gap and increase the number of locally qualified and trained ICT workers.
Meanwhile, he said many of AIIA’s member companies will continue to rely on the flow of skilled 457 visa holders, who will be allowed to remain in Australia for the period and conditions of their existing visas, to meet short-term demands.
“ICT is Australia’s fastest growing sector, growing at a rate of 2% compared with 1.4% per annum growth for the workforce as a whole, yet we are still losing skilled workers to a globally competitive market,” Fitzpatrick said.
“While the industry wasn’t consulted prior to this announcement, we encourage the government to work with us on the details for the new policy.”
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The 457 visa issue has been something of a political football in Australia, with some arguing that it was used by businesses to bring in cheaper overseas labour rather than fill genuine skills gaps. Nevertheless, the decision to axe the programme came out of the blue.
The announcement has also raised concerns in India, given the number of Indian IT workers with in-demand skills and experience who have relocated to Australia on 457 visas.
A spokesperson from India’s ministry of external affairs said: “The government is examining consequences of the new policy in consultation with all stakeholders. This is also a matter we will be looking at in the context of Ceca [comprehensive economic co-operation agreement] negotiations”.
This suggests that the already vexed trade negotiations between India and Australia under the Ceca could become even more fraught as a result of the visa being axed.