457 visas: who do they really benefit?

“You don’t know how lucky you are to be Australian,” he tells me. “All I’ve ever wanted is to live here and have a proper life”. These are the words of Camillo Moreno, my friend, fellow bartender and another immigrant struggling to have a future in this country.

Camillo first travelled to Australia three years ago in an attempt to escape the widespread poverty of his homeland, Colombia.  Motivated to quickly find work and make money, he settled down in Queensland. Despite being educated, fit and healthy, he struggled to find consistent work during his first year on a working holiday visa.

As a condition of working in Australia for a second year, all applicants must work for three months in regional areas before being considered. So, desperate to remain in the country, he laboured for 80 days as a fruit picker—paid only in food and accommodation. When his days on Queensland farms were finally over, he moved to Melbourne and found work as a bartender. I worked alongside him for several months until, to the surprise of both us, our boss offered him something almost all working immigrants dream of: sponsorship.

This proposal—under its technical name of the subclass-457 visa—would entitle him to a full-time employment contract, with an annual salary of $53,900 a year for two years minimum. While in the short-term this meant a secure income, the most important thing for Camillo was that because he was being sponsored he is allowed to apply for permanent residency in Australia.

This is the  reason most immigrants work here. It means the possibility of stability, of being independent, and more importantly a future. Yet what should have been a time of elation for Camillo soon became anything but. From the moment Camillo became sponsored on a 457 visa, his life quickly took a turn for the worst.

“I put up with it,” he tells me. His voice is almost a whisper as we sit together at one of the less conspicuous tables in the corner of the bar. His eyes are darting across the floor—watching out for customers, dirty tables and our boss.

“I won’t ever speak out about it,” he says. “All that will happen is that I’ll lose my sponsorship”.

It’s a Sunday afternoon and despite the bar being pretty quiet, Camillo won’t be sent home anytime soon. He’s onto his sixty-fifth hour of work this week he says, checking his watch. But as he’s on salary, he’ll only be paid for 48. This means he earns a meagre $15.90 per hour, rather than $22 he’s entitled too.

“There are many things that might sound nice and good on paper, that just don’t happen,” he says.

Over the last year working with Camillo, this has definitely shown to be true. Despite providing no qualified training our employers expect him to oversee restaurant management, employ staff, monitor everyone’s wages, clean the bar, as well as constantly work as an overall bartender and floor staff. Despite what his contract states, in reality he receives no rewards and no compensations. The only job security being that he follows orders.

“Sorry, I’ll be back,” Camillo says. He dashes off to seat a family who have just walked in.

What began in 1996 as a method of transferring senior executives and technical specialists between international companies has nowadays evolved into something quite different. The 457-visa scheme was meant to alleviate the difficulties Australian businesses were having sourcing skilled staff locally.

The scheme was originally intended for specialist positions. However due to the economic boom in many of Australia’s industries 457 visas flowed into the construction sector. Australian employers were basically given the green light to outsource cheap foreign workers who knew they could only remain in the country under the proviso their employers were kept happy.

In 2009, the Rudd government implemented reforms to the program in an attempt to combat the corruption debasing the 457-visa. The most notable of these was increasing the temporary skilled migrant income threshold to $53,900, which brought it in line with Australian employees.

In 2013 further reforms were announced by the Gillard government, one of which—called ‘labour market testing’—meant employers had to prove they’d been looking for four months locally before hiring internationally. In Camillo’s case, they simply hired him as casual staff during this period then ‘promoted’ him when permitted.

Another reform was the requirement that employers must prove to the government their 457-visa applicant has previous training qualifications relative to the position. Once again, in Camillo’s case, there were ways to bend the rules.

His official position at work is ‘Event Coordinator’, a position he hasn’t once enacted. His two years of experience organising small communal festivals in Colombia only just qualified him for the title. All it serves as is red tape and to keep the government happy.

“They really try and guilt-trip you,” Camillo says, when he eventually returns to our little table in the corner. “They try and make you feel as if they’re doing you a favour, and that you’d better suck it up and just keep quiet. Or else. But I know they’re the ones benefiting from this”.

When I ask him why he doesn’t go to some sort of official body, he cuts down my suggestion.

“It’s not worth it,” he says. “I just want to stay here”.

It is expensive to stay here though, and he admits it. In the last few weeks he’s had to scrounge $7400 in legal fees, $2070 for the visa application and $5000 for health insurance for both himself andhis partner.

“I’ve had to borrow a lot of money,” he admits. “I’m in debt to my mother and my friends thousands of dollars.”

Camillo is not an isolated case. He hears from countless friends from Columbia who are trying to still trying to find secure work in Australia. And, unfortunately, things don’t look set to improve anytime soon.

Under the Abbott government, the future for 457-visa applications doesn’t look set for any improvements for people such as Camillo—quite the opposite, actually. There is an independent inquiry due to report back later this year and the government wants to revamp the system. The inquiry is looking at removing the necessity to pay both foreign workers and Australians above the same equal threshold. The English proficiency criterion could also be removed—a necessary score of over 5.0 on the International English Language Testing System (IELTS)—and to include low-skilled hospitality occupations, such as bar and wait staff, as a valid positions for applications.

For an immigrant like Camillo, these changes—a superfluous change of title, less pay and less Australian workers alongside him—would have a serious strain on his wellbeing. For a system which was designed to combat labour shortages, its future is looking more and more orientated towards the benefit of Australian employers.

“We used to have a good life,” he says. “But everyone began to be unemployed. So we came here. I don’t regret it.”

Camillo then stands up and thanks me, saying that he has to get back to work. He offers to pay for my drinks, as he always does, before stepping back behind the bar.

By Jack Callil


Photograph via Flickr

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