In April 2009, Brendan O’Connor then Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, announced that changes would be made to the granting of 457 visas, and noted that the demand for these visas had grown considerably during the period between 2003 and 2008. This demand he he explained, was the result of the mining boom and of failure to invest in training*.
The last part of the minister’s sentence is telling. The failure to invest in training has arisen out of decades of the embrace of free market economics and the systematic destruction of public infrastructure in favour of downsizing and outsourcing.
For the past thirty years, beginning with the election of the Hawke government in 1983, Australians have been urged to follow the neoliberal ideas of deregulation, privatization, deunionization, and free trade agreements. This philosophy has permeated both the Left and the Right, Liberal and Labor, to the point where nearly every public institution from universities to the post office and power companies have put themselves on a free market footing.
Starting with Hawke’s subtle but relentless undermining of union power and workers rights (the Accord Mark 1) and moving through Keating’s deliberate destruction of Australia’s manufacturing sector in order to become the ‘clever country’; to Howard’s active encouragement of Australians to move away from the traditional notions of a “Fair Go” (defined at Federation in 1901 as ‘a fair days work for a fair days pay’) and toward the attitude of “I’m on the boat Jack and the devil take the hindmost”, the free market philosophy has worked its way through Australian society like a stale fart through a submarine.
The results of this shift has led to both a steady and deliberate erosion of workers rights and the decline of education and training.
Enter the 457 visa. Designed as a stop-gap to make up for the years of neglect and the dismantling of technical schools, the 457 visas were to encourage overseas workers to enter Australia as skilled migrants and enabled them to apply for permanent residence when the visa expired.
All well and good. The shortfall is temporarily solved and in the long term, Australia gains by encouraging skilled migration. However, the real problem of the lack of training remains unaddressed. The solution is simple.
Firstly, funding for education and training especially apprenticeships needs to be restored and increased in order to give school leavers as much opportunity as possible to find employment as skilled workers in the careers of their choice.
Secondly, The working conditions of those who are granted the visas must be strictly monitored. Abuses of the system by employers has been well documented in the mainstream media, and many of these workers toil under conditions which would make a 19th century Scots mill owner blush. Excuses by employers that they cannot find the equivalent skills among the existing labour force are spurious especially in regards to I.T.
The real reason behind many employers fondness for 457 workers was revealed in an interview with the site manager at Melbourne Water, which was recently blockaded by unionists who were protesting the employment of Filipinos working as welders. “They do what they’re told, and they don’t ask for work breaks” he stated. No doubt Simon Legree would be proud.
Thirdly and finally, politicians both Labor and Liberal, are fond of waxing lyrical about the quality of life lived in Australia. This quality of life, equal rights for women, maternity leave, holiday pay, health care, workers compensation, child care, unemployment benefits etc… have not been gained through the application of free market economic policies such as Friedman’s Lafler Curve (the trickle down effect) nor have they been gained through any sense of Noblesse Oblige on the behalf of employers. Rather, they have been won through negotiation (and sometimes bloody struggle) between employer and employee. What is needed is a shift away from the cosmology which has given us the greatest economic catastrophe in memory, and the implementation of an intelligent approach to utilize the skills already existing in Australia, broadening them through adequate funding to training and education coupled with rational and selective policies for skilled migration.
457 visas? The answer’s as easy as 1,2,3….
* Author’s italics
Sources: Press release from Brendan O’Connor; Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, April 1, 2009 http://www.minister.immi.gov.au/media/media-release/2009/ce09034.htm
Frank, Thomas. Pity The Billionaire Vintage Books, London 2012.