Over the past decade, Australia’s migration program has evolved. It has transformed from a program to source labour into a tool which supplements our skill base and imports knowledge. It has become less permanent but more responsive; less centrally set and more demand driven. At the heart of this transformation is the growth of temporary skilled migration.
Approximately 190,000 temporary migrants now live and work in Australia as primary and secondary 457 visa holders. To put this in perspective, the total number of 457 visa holders currently in Australia is now roughly equal to the annual intake under our permanent migration program, but only a fraction of the total number of the 1.2 million temporary migrants residing in Australia at any one time.
The 457 visa program is a purpose-built labour market policy tool and part of a new era of people movement management. A growing portion of the permanent program comprises employer-sponsored migrants. Of these permanent migrants, more than 70 per cent of those sponsored already reside in Australia on temporary 457 work visas. This is the newest policy advancement, a two-step migration process, allowing demand to drive the flow of skills into our labour force.
The growth of temporary skilled migration means we now have two “migration programs” to address skills shortages that are tied together and inextricably linked: the 457 program and the permanent skilled migration program. Temporary skilled migration has become an automatic relief valve, cushioning the relationship between labour market needs and the time lag inherent to centrally planned permanent migration. Surges in skilled labour requirements or dips in economic activity see numbers of temporary skilled workers ebb and flow. The program helps to maintain Australia’s international competitiveness and is critical to our aspirations to become a regional hub.
Temporary skilled migration has received extensive media coverage and political attention in the almost two decades since the 457 visa was first introduced. Interest in the program reflects the inherent tension in providing a flexible and responsive tool to assist business in accessing the skilled labour they require to satisfy Australia’s labour and economic needs, and enhance our international competitiveness, while also protecting Australian workers, their jobs, training and conditions. In particular there have been periodic reports of exploitation of overseas workers and rorting of aspects of the program by employers.