The Gillard government is continuing its campaign of scaremongering about 457 visa workers. It has announced new laws requiring mandatory “labour-market testing” for jobs before employers are able to sponsor a worker on a 457 visa. This means employers must submit proof all jobs were advertised widely and none of the local applicants had the skills to undertake the job before a 457 visa application is submitted.

The government and many unions claim 457 visas are being used to undermine wages and put local workers out of jobs. But all the evidence of rorting is anecdotal or on a small scale. The Fairfax press exposed over 200 cases of exploitation of 457 workers in early June, but all involved one employer, Radovan Laski, already previously accused of being a conman.

A major survey of 457 visa holders published in May by the Migration Council of Australia involved a much larger investigation. Researchers interviewed 3812 workers who had held 457 visas for at least 10 months. Far from being temporary guest workers,  40,485 workers on 457 visas became permanent residents of Australia in 2011-12 (20 per cent of all new permanent residents).

In total 88 per cent of 457 visa workers surveyed said that their working conditions were “equal to their Australian colleagues”. About 85 per cent said that they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the 457 program.

Union membership

While 457 visa workers had lower rates of unionisation than the wider population, the results show they are by no means impossible to organise. About 7 per cent of workers on 457 visas reported being union members, compared to the Australian average of 18 per cent. But a high number of 457 visa holders are managers (15 per cent).

Union membership rates varied widely according to the sector of employment, as in the wider population. There were higher levels of union membership in health care and social assistance (24.5 per cent), education and training (11.7 per cent), and construction (10.3 per cent).

Reforms to 457 visas

In addition 1600 employers were also interviewed. Worryingly, approximately 20 per cent said that workers on 457 visas have “increased loyalty”, and 2-3 per cent report they had “great control of the employee”. But most employers reported the main benefit of using a 457 visa was in finding highly skilled workers.

The biggest problem with the 457 visa is the extent to which workers are dependant on employer sponsorship for their ongoing and permanent residence. The legislation currently before parliament will extend the period of time that workers on 457 visas are able to be in Australia between jobs from 28 to 90 days. This is a good start.

The report also identified some of the discrimination that 457 visa holders and their families experience, such as the huge school fees charged in NSW and the ACT and the fact partners and children of 457 visa holders have no access to migrant settlement services. These measures are not addressed in the new legislation.

Instead the proposed “labour market test” will increase the discrimination 457 visa holders experience. It cements the idea that they take jobs from Australians. Improved wages and working conditions for all can only be won through all workers fighting together to improve conditions.

Penny Howard

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