According to media reports, the previously little-known 400 visa has become the “new frontier for unscrupulous employers” that are attempting to cut costs by employing a workforce of temporary foreign nationals.
The visa was designed to quickly move international specialists into short-term roles, and has become popular in recent months as a “sleeper” category—due to its looser regulations—following the Turnbull government’s decision to abolish the 457 visa earlier this year.
Documents that were acquired by Fairfax Media show that 400 visas are sometimes approved in as little as 24 hours, often with little to no oversight. Despite the visa’s intended purpose as a category for “highly specialised” workers, it has also frequently been used to fill semi-skilled positions in lieu of local Australian workers.
There are reports that multiple industries have begun making use of the visa, including broadcasting, car manufacturing, and shipping.
Reports show that Chinese workers were flown in to dismantle a former Mitsubishi car plant—for $1.90 an hour—in the Adelaide Hills. Several cases have also recently been referred to the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) involving shipping groups employing foreign engineers under the 400 visa, despite the availability of local Australian specialists.
Another high-profile example was the 2015 Cricket World Cup, which saw local Australian camera crews being passed over by the International Cricket Council in favour of a team of foreign nationals from Singapore.
The FWO has revealed that there are at least 11 cases of workers on 400 visas that are currently being investigated, despite the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s (DIBP) claims that the visa, “encapsulates highly specialised skills, knowledge or experience that can assist Australian business and cannot reasonably be found in the Australian labour market.”
According to a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney Business School, Dr Chris F Wright, the visa is proving particularly attractive to companies looking to meet specific workforce needs.
“If they want to transfer people internally from New York or Shanghai into the Sydney office of a multinational, but that would apply to relatively few organisations,” Wright said.
However, he also claimed that the lack of transparency surrounding the visa and the lack of departmental oversight means that they are providing an open season for “any unscrupulous employer that wants to subvert Australian law, that wants to use a migrant workforce because they aren’t unionised and less likely to complain.”
“We know a lot about the 457. There is evidence about where they worked and for how long.”
“For the 400 there is not much information at all. It’s a sleeper visa category not much attention has been paid to it,” he said.
Wright’s comments follow an attempted Freedom of Information request undertaken by the doctor and another colleague, Irene Nikoloudakis, which was rejected on the grounds that the Department had “no documents” pertaining to the number of visa holders by profession in the 400 stream.
Despite the Department’s lack of records, investigations undertaken by Fairfax Media have revealed that up to half of the workers currently in Australia on a 400 visa were approved under the “not specified” or “other services” category. Other major categories making use of the visa included “professional, scientific and technical”, “arts and recreation services” and “information media and telecommunications”.
A Labor party MP, Julian Hill, has accused the Department of concocting a “fake crackdown” while criticising their handling of the 400 visa, saying that it “should only be available when there’s a genuine skills gap that Australian workers can’t fill”.
“It appears that some employers are still finding ways to bypass the new skills shortage lists and avoid labour market testing.”
“Reports that 400 visas are being handed out like lollies by Peter Dutton’s department are disturbing,” Hill said.
In response, a spokesperson for the DIBP defended the department, saying that it was “cleaning up Labor’s mess”, and that decisions on 400 visa applications were only made “after full and careful consideration of all relevant information”.
“The government is 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 programs, just like they mismanaged Australia’s borders,” he said.
The CEO of Absolute Immigration, Jamie Lingham, was unsurprised by the business community’s uptake of the 400 visa, attributing it to the government’s decision to dismantle the 457 program as, “the 400 visa was introduced primarily due to a need for workers that can take on short-term roles, outside of the regular 457 visa program, with a very quick turn-around”.
“The 457 visa used to take in to account every sponsored worker who was coming to undertake a role, from as little as one day up to four years. The processing times for the 457 program made it unsuitable for short stays of up to three months, therefore the 400 visa had less requirements for documentation when compared to the 457 visa program,” Lingham said.
“We agree that there are a number of issues with the 400 visa, and that this has been a back-door program for companies to undercut local wages and working conditions. These visa holders—and the companies employing them—are not receiving the same level of scrutiny or ongoing monitoring as other visa classes, and we believe that this is leading to a serious erosion of the business sponsored program.”
“The 457 visa was the Rolls Royce of our visa program, and despite being the go-to for negative publicity and media bashing this program had been reviewed and refined so that it would leave little room for unchecked exploitation. Our view is that the government needs to seriously review the 400 visa program, and add in all of the protections that the 457 visa has developed over the years. We also believe that significant effort needs to go into monitoring the users of this program, to help ensure that widespread exploitation does not go unnoticed or unpunished,” he said.
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