Cooking the books on visas

"Where is the labour shortage that requires us to suddenly import thousands of foreign cooks?"
“Where is the labour shortage that requires us to suddenly import thousands of foreign cooks?”

There are worrying trends – and suggestions of rorting – in the so-called “temporary skilled” visa program.The 457 visa program is supposed to meet temporary shortages of skilled labour – hence the official name Subclass 457 (Temporary Work (Skilled)) Visa.

But Prime Minister Julia Gillard says there is growing evidence that importing workers on 457 visas has become a substitute for training Australians.

The Prime Minister also worries that 457 visa holders are increasingly shifting from those with university degrees and advanced trades qualifications, to those with lower skills.

“The areas where temporary work from overseas is growing show that this is work for which we can and should train young Australians,” she said recently.

She cited accommodation and food services, where the number of applications for 457 “skilled” visas had almost doubled compared to the same period last year, and now exceeds 5000.

Applications in retail were up 80% to just under 2500.

“These are plainly areas where the two million Australians in insecure work, or the 660,000 Australians who are unemployed, could be trained and could find secure, skilled work,” Ms Gillard added.

However some employer representatives have called for the 457 visa program to be extended to lower-skilled categories including in health care. Catholic Health Australia chief executive Martin Laverty has called for the 457 visa program to be extended to enrolled nurses.

He said enrolled nurses should be included on the skilled occupation list as one of several measures required to fill job vacancies in the aged care sector, and in some states the acute health sector.

“It [the program] is not only valuable, but should be expanded,” Mr Laverty told the Australian Financial Review.

Economics editor of Melbourne’s Age newspaper, Tim Colebatch, backed up the Prime Minister’s suggestion that the 457 visa program was being rorted in some areas.

He wrote that until mid-2011, few firms used 457 visas to import cooks; in 2010-11, just 45 visas a month were issued for skilled kitchen staff. Yet by January 2013, 1690 cooks had been granted 457 visas, 240 a month.

Colebatch questioned why foreign cooks were suddenly in great demand despite a fall in spending in hotels and restaurants.

“Where is the labour shortage that requires us to suddenly import thousands of foreign cooks?” he asked.

“It’s not just cooks. This year alone, the number of chefs, their superiors, entering on 457 visas has shot up 150% to almost 90 a month. Imports of cafe and restaurant managers have quintupled, from 27 a month to 134 a month. Does anyone smell a rat here?”

Colebatch also asked why “poor, backward Nepal” is now one of the 15 main sources of “temporary skilled migrants” to Australia.

He reminded readers of the rorting of the student visa program, exposed in 2008-09, in which unskilled Indians and Nepalis were lured to study low-level TAFE courses as cooks and hairdressers as a back door to gaining permanent residence.