Labor calls for urgent action on foreign worker visas

Shayne Neumann arrives for a shadow cabinet meeting in Canberra on Monday 21 October 2013. Photo: Andrew Meares
Shayne Neumann arrives for a shadow cabinet meeting in Canberra on Monday 21 October 2013. Photo: Andrew Meares

A little-known visa category facing accusations of systematic abuse needs to be urgently safeguarded by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, the Labor Party has said, expressing concern that subclass 400 visas are being used as a "back door" to undermine the government's foreign labour crackdown.

The call for action follows a recent Fairfax Media report that detailed how the 400 visa - designed to parachute international specialists into short-term roles - has emerged as a "sleeper" category with looser restrictions than the high-profile 457 visa.

"Peter Dutton needs to make sure 400 visas aren't being used to get around skills shortage lists, bypass genuine labour market testing or undercut local wages and conditions," opposition immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann told Fairfax Media.

"Labor has genuine concerns that 400 visas are being used as a back door to bypass the Turnbull government's own skilled migration rules. Loopholes in our visa system undermine the integrity of Australia's skilled migration program and impacts local workers trying to get a job."

In April, amid concerns about exploitation, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Mr Dutton announced a crackdown on skilled migration, abolishing the 457 visa and introducing a tighter replacement. The new scheme will be available for 200 fewer occupations.

The government is also conducting a review of the entire visa system, which includes "consideration of the role and future requirements" of the 400 visa.

The three-month 400 visa was introduced by the former Labor government in early 2013, superseding two previous categories. The Coalition government then modified the visa to allow an extra three months for eligible people.

Earlier this month, Fairfax Media reported on cases in which foreign workers had been exploited under the visa category and, despite the government's requirement that the work be highly specialised, the visa has been used to fill semi-skilled positions that could have been taken by apparently qualified Australians.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection's eligibility criteria say the visa "encapsulates highly specialised skills, knowledge or experience that can assist Australian business and cannot reasonably be found in the Australian labour market".

Documents seen by Fairfax Media show subclass 400 visas are sometimes approved within 24 hours with seemingly minimal oversight.

In 2013-14, the visa's first full year of operation, 40,000 were granted. It peaked at 55,000 in 2015-16. The number is about half the number of 457 visas handed out when the category was axed.

The department's internal guidelines urge visa approvers "to be cautious about attempts to engage overseas workers which may have more to do with reducing costs by circumventing local labour salaries and standards rather than because of the genuine non-availability of local workers".

Labor MP Julian Hill went further than his frontbench colleague, calling on Mr Dutton to immediately "stop issuing visas like lollies".

"You could fix this. Call them now," Mr Hill said in Parliament last week.

A spokesman for the Immigration Minister told Fairfax Media earlier this month the government was "committed to ensuring that Australian workers have priority and that foreign workers are a supplement to, and not a substitute for, Australian workers".

"Labor mismanaged Australia's work visa programmes, just like they mismanaged Australia's borders. The Turnbull government is committed to ensuring integrity in Australia's visa programmes, and is cleaning up Labor's mess," the spokesman said.

This story Labor calls for urgent action on foreign worker visas first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.