On March 20, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that federal immigration minister Chris Evans had agreed to "speed-up" the processing of 457 visas, which allow bosses to hire skilled workers from overseas to fill alleged skill shortages.
The government's move comes against opposition from the union movement, which argues that the 457 visa scheme has led to massive abuse of overseas workers. Workers on the visas are paid less and enjoy far fewer conditions than Australian workers in the same industry.
Under the scheme, bosses may apply to employ skilled workers for up to four years, providing they are paid the statutory minimum ($41,850 for most trades). Employers are not required to provide workers with award rates of pay — let alone the same wages and conditions that unionised staff in the same industry may have negotiated.
Guest workers employed on 457 visas have few rights. When the boss decides that the worker is no longer required, the worker must find an alternative employer within 28 days or leave the country. In many cases, skilled workers employed under the 457 visa scheme are highly exploited — working longer hours for less money and in much safe conditions than workers with full citizenship rights.
Speaking to ABC Radio on March 25, Professor Phil Lewis, a "labour market expert" from the University of Canberra, argued that immigration department statistics showed that workers employed on 457 visas were not being paid less than workers with full citizenship rights — "in fact the averages show they're getting paid more", he argued. "So what it seems to indicate is that employers are actually doing the right thing and employing people for the wage commensurate for their skill and that wage is very similar to what they'd be paying Australian workers."
However Andrew Ferguson, NSW state secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, argues that the statistics were misleading. "It's not the truth", Ferguson told Green Left Weekly. "The methodology [of the immigration department study] is wrong in the calculation of average wage rates. The immigration department figures take an average across the industry, including trades people and apprentices. But these are skilled workers and should only be compared with other skilled workers.
"The study also doesn't take account of wage variations across cities and regional areas. In many regional areas, rates of pay are lower than the cities, yet most of the  jobs are in the city. Workers employed on 457 visas must have higher minimum standards and rates of pay. Workers are entitled to market rates of pay rather than the statutory minimum."
Ferguson said that "The market rate of pay that skilled workers can demand is substantially higher. Employment of workers on the lower rate undermines pay and conditions throughout the industry." He argued that strict limitations should be applied to the 457 visa scheme, with employers obtaining the agreement of the relevant union in the industry that a bona fide skills shortage exists.
Ferguson also argued that the visa should only be available to bosses who have a history of training skilled workers in Australia. "They mustn't simply be allowed to steal skilled workers from some of the poorest countries in the world", he said.
Ian Bray, WA assistant secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, told GLW that "the 457 and 456 [short-term business] visa system should be completely disbanded. All immigrants should be given full citizenship rights in this country."
Bray derided the immigration department's claims that workers employed on 457 visas received pay and conditions equivalent to Australian citizens. "Our experience is limited because we've managed to have a stop on 457 visas [in the industries covered by the MUA]", Bray said. "However the situation is different for [workers covered by] the officers' unions, such as the Australian Institute of Marine Power Engineers.
"The MUA has had to intervene to make sure that workers employed under 457 visas in those situations receive the same pay and conditions [as Australian citizens]. In 80% of the cases where we uncover this, the workers are paid less than 50% of the Australian rate."
"Our members are very committed to giving all seafarers equal rights", Bray told GLW. "457 visas create a second tier of the working class in this country that will never get full citizenship. And that's in terms of OHS, conditions — the whole box and dice."