ABUL RIZVI: Is Minister Coleman Unwinding Dutton’s Sub-class 457 Changes

Poor David Coleman. Business and employer groups, particularly in regional Australia, have been pillorying him for the ham-fisted changes to employer-sponsored temporary and permanent migration implemented by his predecessor Peter Dutton. Contrary to the traditional approach of past Liberal Party Immigration Ministers, Dutton tightened these categories in a way that shocked business and employer groups. Coleman is now sensibly moving to unwind many of Dutton’s changes. But can he make the changes quickly enough to satisfy employers around regional Australia and will he get the balance right between streamlining visa pathways, protecting the opportunities of semi-skilled Australian workers, maintaining visa integrity and minimising exploitation of the overseas workers?

The former sub-class 457 temporary business entry visa certainly needed reform. But Dutton’s April 2017 changes used a sledgehammer when a scalpel was needed. He abolished the 457 visa and replaced it with the new Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visa sub-class 482. This new visa dramatically reduces the range of occupations available, increases the relevant skilled work experience requirement, raises the English language requirement, adds a range of administrative processes that add cost and delay but do little to improve outcomes and increases visa application fees to astronomical levels.

In addition, Dutton made the pathway from the new TSS visa to the permanent residence Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS) and Employer Nomination Scheme (ENS) significantly more difficult. The changes are resulting in a rapid fall in application rates for employer sponsored entry – the categories that research consistently shows deliver the best economic and budget outcomes.

To start addressing Dutton’s folly, new Immigration Minister David Coleman has proposed extending the Designated Area Migration Agreements (DAMA) that has operated in the NT since 2015 to a wide range of regional areas. Once extended to all interested parts of regional Australia, this will effectively unwind many of Dutton’s changes to employer sponsored migration.

Coleman has announced the existing NT DAMA will be extended for five years and similar agreements are being negotiated with more regions starting with Warrnambool. Most significantly, media reports suggest the new DAMAs will provide concessional pathways to permanent residence (mostly likely via the RSMS visa – back to the future)?

The NT DAMA provides extensive concessions against the standard TSS requirements in terms of English language, minimum salary that must be paid and how this is calculated, as well as significantly expanding the range of occupations that can be accessed, particularly semi-skilled occupations.

The NT DAMA, for example, allows access to semi-skilled occupations such as aged or disabled carer; agricultural and mobile plant operator; baker; bar attendant – supervisor; barista; beauty therapist; bus driver; childcare worker; community worker; cook; crowd controller; deckhand; delivery driver; dental assistant; diver; earthmoving plant operator; family day care worker; gaming worker; hairdresser; landscape gardener; master fisher; office manager; personal care assistant; retail supervisor; store person; tour guide; truck driver; tyre fitter; upholsterer; waiter – supervisor; youth worker.

This is an extraordinary list of semi-skilled occupations that are available under the NT DAMA. It may reflect the unique circumstances of the NT. On the other hand, across Australia, unemployment rates in lower skill occupations such as these are much higher than those in high skill occupations. Are DAMA’s such as for the NT abandoning these lower skilled Australians.

Increased use of tightly targeted DAMAs with only minor concessions in terms of semi-skilled occupations, English ability and salaries is not a bad approach (the concessions in the NT DAMA are not minor).

But negotiation of dozens of bespoke agreements with regional and local councils around Australia will take a very long time and a lot of resources. Significant additional resources will be required to then manage and monitor these bespoke agreements – just at a time the visa processing areas of Home Affairs are desperately short staffed.

And in time, larger jurisdictions will request DAMAs. Places like Cairns, Townsville, Geelong, Hobart, Canberra and Adelaide. Perhaps even Perth and eventually Melbourne.

At what point is it better to address the damage done by Dutton to the employer sponsored categories nationally rather than using the DAMA approach to unwind what he did?

DAMAs that are administered by conscientious and efficient local councils will work well because these local councils have a good understanding of local labour needs and an understanding of which local employers are trustworthy and which need greater scrutiny and monitoring. But less conscientious local councils may have the wool pulled over their eyes more readily by unscrupulous labour agents and employers.

The biggest issue, however, will be the risk of worker exploitation. This will particularly be the case because the workers will have limited English, limited education; and will be lowly paid, including  where payment is partly ‘in-kind’. The risk of exploitation will be particularly high because low skill workers are more beholden to their employers to eventually secure permanent residence compared to higher skill workers who can more easily find an alternative employer to sponsor them.

Will the relevant local councils and Home Affairs have the capacity to properly monitor the DAMAs to minimise the risk of exploitation of low skill, low paid workers with limited English and little understanding of Australia’s workplace laws? Will the Commonwealth adequately fund this regulatory function?

I doubt it.

Abul Rizvi was a senior official in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007 when he left as Deputy Secretary. He was awarded the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for services to development and implementation of immigration policy, including in particular the reshaping of Australia’s intake to focus on skilled migration. He is currently doing a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies.

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