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Migration program updates for Australian visas and residency

At the recent Migration Institute of Australia conference in Sydney, the Department of Home Affairs shed light on significant changes within Australia’s migration program, with an emphasis on improving the skilled migration system.

The Department presented insights into the program’s overhaul as the existing program was deemed “not fit for purpose” due to unclear objectives and inefficiencies in attracting highly skilled migrants and facilitating business access to workers. 

Before the end of this year, we should see the transition period from a subclass 482 visa to permanent residency reduce from three years to two, allowing all occupations to transition to permanent residency, and making amendments to the age exemptions. Additionally, the removal of the two-visa limit for short-term occupations is set to provide more flexibility within the system.

The Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold (TSMIT) is another significant change with the increase from $53,900 to $70,000 that started on 1 July 2023, marking the first TSMIT rise since 2013. 

Major changes proposed to improve Australia’s migration system

The Federal Government’s draft Migration Strategy outlines a ‘once in a generation reform’ of Australia’s current migration program. This comes after a review that found the current program “not fit for purpose”.  While some changes commenced in July 2023, it may take some time before we see any significant change. 

This year, the Government undertook consultation with state and territory governments and key stakeholders on the outline of the Migration Strategy and critical policy shifts, with the final strategy to be released later this year. 

For employers, some of the proposals outlined in the Migration Strategy include doing away with outdated and inflexible occupation lists and providing a fast, simple pathway for specialised, highly skilled workers. It also allows employers to pay large visa costs monthly rather than upfront and broadens the program to encompass skills at all levels.

Although it’s too early to predict what the new migration program will look like, it is pleasing to see a thorough review with consultation being undertaken. 

Protecting Australia’s migrant workforce

With up to one in six recent migrants being paid less than the statutory minimum wage, the Federal Government has responded to what it calls “a crisis of exploitation” by introducing several legislative reforms to better protect visa holders working in Australia. Key changes include harsher penalties and potential jail time for employers who try to take advantage of their migrant workers.

The measures announced by the Federal Government follow the recommendations contained in the 2019 Report of the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce headed by Australian economist, Professor Allan Fels. The report followed revelations of significant wage underpayments and poor working conditions in certain industry sectors, with particular focus on temporary migrants. Although 7-Eleven was at the forefront of media attention following the discovery of systemic underpayments in their franchises, the report revealed that the problem is widespread.

On 5 June 2023, Minister O’Neil, along with Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke and Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs Minister Andrew Giles jointly flagged key legislative changes to the Migration Act 1958 (Cth). These changes encompass criminalising the act of pressuring individuals to violate their visa conditions and prohibiting businesses from further hiring people on temporary visas where they have exploited migrants via the introduction of prohibition notices. Changes will also increase penalties and compliance tools to deter exploitation and repeal section 235, making it an offence for a non-citizen to contravene conditions of their visa and was perceived to discourage reporting exploitative behaviour.

Protections for visa holders

The Government has committed to working with unions, industry, and key stakeholders to introduce future reforms, including strengthening the existing “assurance protocol” to protect visa holders who go to the Fair Work Ombudsman for assistance. It is also piloting a new “whistleblower visa” to allow migrant workers to stay in Australia while they pursue an exploitation claim. Allowing visa holders up to 180 days to find a new employer sponsor is a further reform set to ease the pressure faced by exploited workers to continue working in poor conditions.

The Government will allocate $50 million in extra funding to the Australian Border Force to enforce these changes using new compliance tools yet to be introduced. Existing financial sanctions will also be increased, and in some cases tripled.

The Government has also committed to “strengthen the firewall” between the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Department of Home Affairs to encourage whistleblowing and protect visa holders who report employer exploitation. 

As the reforms roll out, businesses that engage visa holders will need to pay close attention, considering the possibility of being banned from future hiring if found guilty of exploiting migrant workers.

Individuals who deal with visa holders, including management, human resource staff and legal advisors, should familiarise themselves with their obligations and the introduction of criminal sanctions for those found to have coerced workers into breaching their visa conditions.

By Rebecca Macmillan, Migration Practice Director at Holding Redlich 

The information in this article is of a general nature and is not intended to address the circumstances of any particular individual or entity. Although we endeavour to provide accurate and timely information, we do not guarantee that the information in this article is accurate at the date it is received or that it will continue to be accurate in the future.

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