World 19.4.2017 10:35 am

‘Australia first’ foreign visa changes spark cheers, fears

Pedestrians in Sydney's central business district on Apr 19, 2017. Australia's decision to scrap a visa programme for temporary foreign workers won both praise and criticism. (Photo: AFP/Peter Parks)

Pedestrians in Sydney's central business district on Apr 19, 2017. Australia's decision to scrap a visa programme for temporary foreign workers won both praise and criticism. (Photo: AFP/Peter Parks)

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has however welcomed the changes.

Australia’s controversial decision to scrap a visa programme for temporary foreign workers got a mixed response Wednesday, with critics slamming it as spin over substance and pandering to anti-immigration rhetoric.

The “457 visa” allows businesses facing skills shortages to employ labour from overseas, but has been slammed by unions amid claims that bosses were abusing it and local workers were missing out.

“The 457 visa is abolished. It will be replaced by a new system that will be manifestly, rigorously, resolutely conducted in the national interest to put Australians and Australian jobs first,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Tuesday.

“That’s our commitment. Australian jobs, Australian values.”

Independent anti-immigration politician Pauline Hanson took credit for the announcement, which drew comparisons to moves by US President Donald Trump to tighten skilled-worker visa rules on Tuesday.

“Public confidence in the skilled migration system is vital, and this announcement will help to achieve that confidence,” said acting chief Jenny Lambert.

But the Labor opposition, which has long called for reforms to the 457 visa scheme to protect local workers, said the changes did not go far enough.

“If you’re asking me what do I think about renaming one category of visa into two different categories of visas, well that’s just shifting deckchairs isn’t it, on the proverbial sinking ship,” its leader Bill Shorten said Wednesday.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions echoed the call for independent research into labour shortages and described the changes as “more spin than substance”.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said on Twitter the reforms were “more like a name change, and re-tune for the racist dog whistle”.

The four-year visa would be replaced by a two-tier system — valid for either two years or four years — of skilled temporary work permits, and would include tighter requirements for language and work experience.

Some 200 jobs would be cut from the list of eligible professions.

There were 95,758 holders of the 457 visas in Australia as of the end of September, according to immigration data, less than one percent of the workforce.

Some 24.6 percent were from India, followed by Britain at 19.5 percent and China at 5.8 percent. The top occupations were cook, software developer programmer and resident medical officer.

Tech executives, whose companies were expected to be hard hit, said the changes would hit growth and increase costs.

Media reported that a foreign worker tax on companies to fund skills-training for local staff could also be introduced in the annual budget in May.

© Agence France-Presse

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