Pay arrangements are being improved, new language requirements will be imposed, and formal skills assessments will be brought in.
Australia's trade unions say thousands of overseas workers have been exploited under the scheme, which began as an answer to a professional skills shortage in Australia. They've welcomed the changes, but say their implementation will be key to restoring the program's integrity.
Presenter: Linda Mottram
Speaker: Julius Roe, president of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union; Senator Chris Evans, Australia's immigration minister
MOTTRAM: The 457 visa category was a response to serious skill shortages in Australia, particularly in professions like medicine, accountancy and information technology. Originally, employers had to prove that no local alternative could be found and foreign workers had to have equivalent qualifications to those required by the local market. But in a booming economy with labor demand rocketing, the previous government of John Howard removed key requirements and opened the program to a much wider range of occupations, including many trades. Julius Roe, President of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, laments the result.
Roe: Employers sought to bring workers in in order to pay them less and provide lesser conditions than they would have had to in the local market. So the change in regulations actually provided a huge incentive for employers to exploit.
MOTTRAM: Workers with poor skills and education, and often poor English, were also open to exploitation, tied as they were to their employer. Some found themselves agreeing to substandard arrangements just so they could remain in Australia. Julius Roe says his union alone has dealt with thousands of such cases.
Roe: There were many examples of workers being overcharged rents, being charged by agents to get their visa far more than it actually costs, in fact hundreds of times more than it costs, people sleeping inside the factory, many, many examples of exploitation and abuse and its not just isolated cases.
MOTTRAM: Much was revealed in a review of the 457 visas, ordered a year ago after a change of government in Canberra.
Immigration minister Senator Chris Evans announced some changes last year, including a minimum salary level for 457 workers, which will now guarantee a base of 45,000 Australian dollars annually. Now the minister's making wider changes, focussed on a key finding of the review. Chris Evans.
EVANS: What we're seeking to do is to go to a full market rate system whereby the overseas worker would have to be employed on the same rates and conditions as an Australian worker working in the same industry or enterprise.
MOTTRAM: The changes also include tougher minimum English language requirements and formal skills assessments. Employers will also have to demonstrate commitment to employing local workers and to non-discriminatory practices.
Unionist Julius Roe, who's a member of the government panel that's considered the 457 visas, says the changes are positive, though implementation will be the test - for example of the concept of market rate, and the establisment of proper behaviour by employers.
Roe: Good principles but exactly how they're implemented is going to make a very big difference as to whether this exploitation is cleared up or not.
MOTTRAM: The minister, Senator Evans says the changes are specific and there's no cause for concern. He also says tougher English lanuage requirements will help those workers who may want to make the transition to permanent migration. And the minister dismisses suggestions the 457 visas should be scrapped altogether.
EVANS: No I think a lot of those calls are very overstated and quite frankly are more about protectionism than making sure the scheme's got integrity. This isn't about protectionism this is about ensuring that a very valuable scheme will be able to be operated in a way which has integrity and has public confidence and support.
MOTTRAM: In a declining economy, applications for the visas have fallen significantly. In the six months to last December, primary 457 applications averaged 700 a month. Now, that's down to an average of 430. But it will be some time until Australia can grow enough qualified locals to fill the same key skill shortages. So the 457, demand-driven, temporary visa will remain.