Temporary Overseas Workers

Temporary Overseas Workers

Unions believe that all workers in Australia, no matter where they’re from, should have equal rights to decent pay and conditions and to be treated fairly at work.

There are many visa programs in Australia under which overseas residents gain the right to work in Australia on a temporary basis.  

While the inflow of temporary overseas workers increased rapidly under the former Howard Government as the economy grew, the GFC saw a  drop in numbers. However, this trend has since reversed and there  continues to be a steady movement of temporary overseas workers to Australia.  

Vulnerable to exploitation

Since 2000 there has been a significant increase in the proportion of temporary workers coming from developing countries. In 2007, the two fastest growing categories by nationality of workers on 457 visas were China and the Philippines. In addition, it is only in more recent years that Australia has entered into working holiday arrangements with developing countries such as Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Workers from these countries tend to be at greater risk of being exploited by unscrupulous recruitment and migration agents and employers through:

  • The potential for recruitment and/or migration agents to provide misinformation during the recruitment process;
  • Language barriers;
  • A lack of traditional support and family networks in Australia;
  • Unfamiliarity with the way the Australian legal and administrative system works; and
  • A lack of knowledge of their rights under Australian law and low rates of union membership.

Temporary Overseas Workers (457 Visas)
This is the temporary work visa that attracts the most public attention. Under this visa program, employers can sponsor overseas workers in occupations deemed by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) to be in demand, for up to four years. It is an uncapped temporary visa program entirely driven by employer demand.

The explosion in the number of 457 visas that started in the early 2000s, , along with a shift in source countries and increased employer demand for workers with lower levels of skills,  placed enormous pressure on what was already a deeply flawed temporary migration scheme.

Workers on 457 visas have been underpaid, abused and subjected to sub-standard conditions of work. Most cases of abuse have tended to involve trades level 457 visa holders with little or no English language skills who often lacked the technical skills they are supposed to have to be eligible for a 457 visa.

At the same time, the 457 visa program has undermined the Australian labour market by enabling employers who are unable to attract local labour as a result of offering poor wages and conditions, or who are unwilling to train workers in areas of skills needs, to sponsor workers from overseas.

As a result of the many cases of ill-treatment of overseas workers uncovered by unions, in 2008, the Labor Government supported a review into the integrity of the 457 scheme (the Deegan Review), which produced a raft of recommendations aimed at restoring integrity to the 457 visa program.

The Deegan Review led to a major reform of the 457 visa program which began in September 2009.  The reforms included:

Requirements for all new subclass 457 visa holders to be responsible for all health costs for themselves and their family.  See Health Insurance factsheet
The worker protection reforms introduced in 2009 helped remove the worst excesses of the 457 visa program as it operated under the previous Coalition government, but cases of abuse and exploitation continue to be uncovered, and a number of flaws remain with how the program operates and is enforced.  

Unions will continue to work hard to ensure that the 457 visa program recognises and protects the rights of temporary overseas workers and their families, and can’t be used to undercut wages and working conditions in Australia, or deny employment and training opportunities for Australian citizens and residents.

Key facts
The latest figures from DIAC show the continuing growth in the 457 visa program:

  • The total number of 457 visa workers in Australia at 31 March 2012 was at an all-time high of 88 590, an increase of 22% in comparison with 12 months ago.
  • The number of 457 visa primary applications granted from July 2011 to end March 2012 was 50 960; 49.2% higher than the same period the year before. If this trend continues to the end of 2011-12, 457 visa numbers for this year will be greater than they were during the pre-GFC mining boom.
  • The number of 457 visas granted for trades workers is up 140% on the same period last year, and there are now 13,300 such visa workers in Australia at the end of March 2012

Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme
The Rudd Government announced in late 2007 that up to 2500 visas would be  granted over three years providing workers from the Pacific Islands with the opportunity to work in the horticultural industry in regional Australia for up to seven months in every 12 month period where there is a demonstrated unmet demand for labour.

The program is aimed at both assisting Australian employers find labour and contributing to Australia’s Pacific region economic development objectives. It has also been used by the Australian Government during its negotiations with Pacific countries over a regional free trade agreement.

In December 2011, the Government announced that the pilot will become an ongoing seasonal worker  program commencing on 1 July 2012. Seasonal workers who are citizens of East Timor, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu will be able to participate with 10,450 places available for the horticultural industry.

Enterprise Migration Agreements
Enterprise Migration Agreements (EMAs) are a new temporary migration initiative designed by the Australian Government to help address the skill needs of the resources sector.

An EMA is not a new visa. It is an ‘umbrella’ agreement between the project owners of major resource construction projects and the Australian Government that provides up-front approval for an agreed number of temporary overseas workers to be employed during the life of the project. Overseas workers sponsored under an EMA will hold 457 visas and will be subject to the Worker Protection Act 2009.

Direct employers of the 457 workers under an EMA will need to comply with sponsorship obligations, including paying Australian market salary rates. Employers who do not comply with sponsorship obligations will be subject to sanctions such as a bar on sponsoring further overseas workers or termination of the labour agreement.

The very first EMA has recently been finalised and will cover the construction phase of the Roy Hill iron ore project in Western Australia. The EMA allows for a minimum of up to 1715 temporary overseas workers on 457 visas to work on the project, many of whom will be working in semi-skilled, rather than skilled, occupations.

Unions recognise that in some cases there may be a need for temporary overseas workers to supplement local workers on major projects, but this needs to be rigorously tested.

Unions will not support the making of EMAs unless satisfied every effort has first been made to fill positions locally, that concrete measures are in place to employ and train locally in future, and that overseas workers will receive their full entitlements and protections and not be used to undercut the wages and working conditions of Australian workers.

Subsequent to the announcement of the Roy Hill EMA, the Government has committed to establish an online Jobs Board to advertise all vacant positions and allow local workers to express an interest and apply for available positions. It must be mandatory for project owners and employers under an EMA will be required to use the Jobs Board before sponsoring overseas workers.

This will help ensure that the community can have confidence that Australian workers (citizens and permanent residents) are being given first opportunity to fill Australian jobs.   

Unions will continue to advocate for Australian workers to be given the first opportunity to apply for mining jobs before resorting to an EMA, and will insist on total transparency around any decision to grant an EMA so Australians can be assured that this is not simply being done to undercut wages and conditions, or import an alternative, cheaper migrant workforce.

Regional Migration Agreements
The Australian Government has also recently announced the introduction of Regional Migration Agreements (RMAs). The idea of RMAs is similar to EMAs, except an RMA is designed to cover a number of employers in a region, while an EMA is for a single project site. An RMA will be an umbrella agreement that allows a certain number of overseas workers to be sponsored by participating employers in a defined region over the duration of the agreement.

An RMA is currently being developed and negotiated for Darwin and the Northern Territory. Unions will take the same approach to RMAs as they do with EMAs in support of jobs and training for Australian workers and support and protection for any overseas workers.

See: www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/48c-rma.htm

SkillSelect is an online system that enables skilled workers interested in migrating to Australia to record their details to be considered for a skilled visa through an Expression of Interest (EOI). Intending migrants could be found and nominated for skilled visas by Australian employers or state and territory governments, or they could be invited by the Australian Government to lodge a visa application.

SkillSelect will be implemented on 1 July 2012. All intending migrants interested in the independent skilled, family sponsored skilled, state or territory sponsored skilled, or business skills visa programs will be required to submit an EOI and receive an invitation in order to lodge a visa application.

See: www.immi.gov.au/skills/skillselect/

Translated materials
Download translated materials on basic protections and entitlements, work rights, visa choices, employer obligations and using a migration agent for overseas workers.

Translation service
For information in languages other than English phone the Translation and Interpreting Service on 131 450.

Special 457 visa hotline
The ACTU has a confidential hotline to assist people on short-term working visas who are being exploited by an employer. The number is 1300 362 223.