Abbott Says Planned 457 Visa Changes About Flexibility

Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he will overhaul the 457 visa scheme as part of his innovation and competitiveness agenda.

SBS World News Radio, by Peggy Giakounelos, 15 October 2014

Mr Abbott says he wants to make changes to the scheme to make the 457 visa process more flexible for business.

The Federal Government says the current 457 visa scheme is too rigid and any changes are not a way of substituting overseas labour for domestic labour.

Those planned changes include streamlining the processing of sponsorship, nomination and visa for low-risk applicants.

And they include increasing the sponsorship-approval period from 12 to 18 months for start-up businesses.

The Government says that would give start-ups more time to make their businesses sustainable.

There would also be more flexible English-language testing and skill requirements for 457 applicants.

Mr Abbott says safeguards would be kept in place to prevent exploitation and protect local workers.

And he says the Government would continue to require foreign workers be paid the same as Australians.

"We want these to be more flexible, and we want these to be a way of helping business to grow. 457s are not a way of substituting overseas labour for domestic labour. They are a way of helping Australian businesses to grow so that Australian workers have more opportunities and higher wages. So, where there is the chance of more investment and substantially more employment for Australians if we are more flexible, that's what we want to look at. "

While business has complained the 457 visa scheme is too rigid, unions fear businesses seeking cheap overseas labour could rort the system.

The main union representing construction workers has criticised the Government's planned changes, saying workers' rights would be undermined.

The secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, Michael O'Connor, says they would be bad news for overseas workers and unemployed Australians.

"The changes will basically impact badly on 457 visa workers, and it will impact badly on those people in Australia looking for work. It will increase the chances of 457 visa workers being seriously injured or even killed on the job, because it's going to water down English requirements and that's going to compromise health and safety on especially the areas that we cover. And by allowing employers easy access to 457 visa workers, it's going to make sure that young people and people who are looking for work, long-term unemployed, aren't going to get a chance for a job when they should do."

But the national president of the Migration Institute of Australia does not share CFMEU concerns about the effects of poor English-language skills.

Angela Chan says current English-language requirements are too strict and she also agrees with the Government that more flexibility is needed in other areas of the scheme.

"What's happened is that the program had bogged down in red tape and requirements that made it very difficult for employers to sponsor skilled workers from overseas. People often don't need to have a high level of English to perform their trades. For example, a cook ... I would rather have a cook that could cook a beautiful and safe and hygienic and first-class sushi, or any other type of food that requires a high level of skill, then (for that cook) to be able to read the sports pages of the local newspaper."

The Opposition says Mr Abbott's announcement on the visas is unclear and it is concerned the changes could have occupational health-and-safety implications.

The Government says it will soon make further announcements on the recommendations of reviews into both the 457 and the Significant Investor Visa programs.

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