Australian concern over IT visa jump

Von Michael Crawford

A steady rise in the number of temporary work visas issued by Australia for skilled IT professionals has drawn warnings in the country of scams that could destabilize labour and wage levels.

The Australian Computer Society says Australia"s immigration system is vulnerable to unscrupulous operators looking to import cheap labour and undercut current wages.

Department of Immigration documents obtained by Computerworld show that between July 1, 2004 until Jan. 31, 2005 a total of 2,555 Business Sponsorship work visas, known as 457s (temporary Long Stay), were issued to IT professionals hoping to work in Australia.

On an annualized basis, this means Australia"s intake of 457 holders will jump to more than 4,300 if current demand in the IT job market continues to rise. The figures also show a steep rise on previous levels of 457 visas with 4,129 visas issued in 2003-04, 3,567 for 2002-03 and 3,612 for 2001-02.

Valid for between three months and four years, 457s visas as are defined by the Department of Immigration as "for Businesses unable to meet their skill needs from within the Australian labour force". The scheme is not intended to give employers an option to import labour if they find available local labour prices too high.

The trend has Australian Computer Society president Edward Mandla deeply worried that the current 457 visa system is open to abuse.

"The 457 visas are critical - they allow multinational (IT vendors) to set up quickly in Australia, and to train-up Australians on vendor customer sites like banks," Mandla said, adding that the visa holders are typically highly-skilled, top IT people. But the process has to be transparent, he said.

However, he warned that on current immigration figures provided to the ACS, it appeared that 457 visas were increasingly being used as a vehicle to import cheap labour, with remuneration figures now way below and badly out of synch with purported skill levels of many visa holders.

Mandla said information the Department of Immigration gave to the ACS showed around 40 percent of current 457 visa holders were cleared on estimated salaries of between $35,000 to $45,000 - substantially below current market rates.

Mandla also claimed the same immigration information showed around 60 percent of current visa holders were under 34 years of age. Computerworld is seeking to verify these figures with the Immigration Department. "One of the attributes of the 457 is that the holders are not market tested and [nor are we] testing whether these people are qualified. We just don"t know where they are going... it would be fascinating to find out," Mandla said.

However, not all agree with Mandla. One advocate for further loosening of temporary IT visa requirements is the Information Technology Contracting Recruitment Association which recently lobbied Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone for a substantial rise in temporary visa numbers.

In September 2003 the Department of Immigration conducted a crackdown which saw a number of contract services and management companies banned from using the 457 visa schemes because they breached visa conditions.