news Julia Gillard this morning stated that the nation’s IT sector was taking jobs away from Australians by importing foreign workers en-masse under the 457 visa program, a situation which the Prime Minister said was “just not acceptable”.
The 457 visa program is an initiative which sees overseas workers sponsored to work in Australia temporarily (between three months and four years) with the aim of meeting demand for skills not immediately available in Australia. Eventually, 457 visa holders are able to convert to Australian permanent residency status.
The program is used to a certain extent by IT firms operating in Australia to import skilled labor, as the list of supported professions under the program’s terms include a number of popular IT professions such as ICT business analyst, systems analyst, analyst programmer, developer programmer, softare engineer, computer network and systems engineer and telecommunications engineer. The IT portion of the program is administered through progressional group the Australian Computer Society.
However, in a fiery speech this morning to a conference held by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, which is typically associated with the Australian Labor Party, Prime Minister Julia Gillard slammed the IT sector’s participation in the program.
“Fact: there is clear evidence that in some growing sectors, importing workers on 457 visas is a substitute for spreading important economic opportunity to Australian working people,” Gillard said. “Outside the resource states of Queensland and Western Australia, the single largest sector for temporary overseas work isn’t mining – or even construction – it is information technology. One in twenty temporary overseas workers in Australia is doing IT work in New South Wales alone.”
“It is just not acceptable that information technology jobs, the quintessential jobs of the future, the very opportunities being created by the digital economy, precisely where the big picture is for our kids, should be such a big area of imported skills.”
“An occupation where we have brought in 5,800 temporary workers in just seven months – compared to just 4,500 Australian IT undergraduate student completions in 2011. Fact: the areas where temporary work from overseas is growing show that this is work for which we can and should train young Australians.”
Gillard’s comments come as Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor has also been recently slamming the IT sector’s usage of the 457 visa program. In February O’Connor issued a media release stating that the number of 457 visa applications jumped by 9.5 per cent this year, while the number of 457 visas granted grew by 6.6 per cent.
At the time, O’Connor said the figures backed the Gillard Government’s decision to take action to close loopholes in the 457 program to ensure that local jobseekers were not disadvantaged by unscrupulous employers bringing in temporary workers from overseas.
“These January figures show that after the traditional December lull, 457s have continued to increase,” O’Connor said. “At January 31, there were more than 105,000 people in Australia working on temporary 457 visas. That is an increase of 22.4 per cent compared to January 2012. “The overall trend is clear – more people are coming in on temporary skilled worker visas. This comes at a time when the unemployment rate is flat, not dropping.”
“We know that in the IT industry, for example, 457 visas have increased by 68 per cent while vacancies for local IT workers are decreasing.” O’Connor subsequently announced a range of measures to tighten the 457 visa program.
I haven’t personally seen much evidence of Australians finding it hard to obtain work in the IT industry; on the contrary, there appears to be a great deal of work around, with both large organisations (the Government in particular is always hiring skilled IT professionals) and small to medium-sized business (including startups) having a great deal of jobs on offer.
What I am seeing a great deal of at the moment is major corporations offshoring IT jobs. When this happens, I tend to see some local redundancies, but those IT professionals laid off are usually quickly soaked up by other companies and/or trained to higher skill levels.
I would interpret these comments by Gillard and O’Connor as political moves designed to appeal to Labor’s ‘working class’ power base. However … this does seem a little strange, given that very few IT professionals would class themselves as working class per se. The IT profession tends to be more dominated by white collar IT professionals who would be middle class; and often vote Liberal. You don’t really tend to see too many IT professionals get politically active in the Australian Labor Party.
Are Gillard’s comments here a little misplaced? Yes, personally I think they are. What the Government should be focusing on instead in this area, in my opinion, is setting up incentives for IT firms to startup, grow and expand massively their operations in Australia, through tax concessions and the like. Incentivising major IT companies to stay in Australia instead of letting them be sold off to global companies would be one way to help grow Australia’s digital economy and foster jobs. Another way would be to provide even more significant incentives to the local video game industry, which has been basically wiped out under the current Labor Government, due in part, I would argue, to a complete lack of Government attention to the sector.
It would be nice if the Gillard Government stopped ranting about the fairly insignificant 457 visa scheme, stopped propping up ageing industries such as car manufacturing, and started directly supporting local IT firms, especially video game development companies, to operate in Australia. It would be very nice.
But then, politics isn’t always about real outcomes: Usually politics is just about politics, no matter that it often makes no sense to those outside politics.
Image credit: Office of the Prime Minister