Labor pledges stricter rules for skilled worker visas

Crackdown includes measures to limit work visas to areas of genuine skills shortages

Bill Shorten and his wife Chloe in Cairns on Monday.
 Bill Shorten and his wife Chloe at the Skyrail in Cairns on Monday. Shorten will stay in Queensland on Tuesday to announce new policies, including a crackdown on work visa rules. Photograph: Kym Smith/AAP

Labor will tighten work rules for skilled visa holders and redirect $4bn of unspent funding for northern Australia to projects including a gas pipeline.

The visa crackdown includes measures to limit work visas to areas of genuine skills shortages and strengthen assessments to ensure foreign workers have the right skills and occupational licenses.

Bill Shorten will announce the policies in Queensland on Tuesday, as he campaigns on Labor’s plan for jobs in the key marginal seats of Flynn and Herbert.

Labor will promise to honour existing projects in the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility but redirect the remaining $4bn to a new development fund, citing concerns about oversight of the Coalition’s facility and failure to dispense money.

The new Northern Australia Development Fund will provide $1bn to tourism projects and “up to $1.5bn” for a new gas pipeline to unlock gas in Queensland’s Galilee and Bowen basins and connect the Beetaloo basin to Darwin and the east coast.

Labor said the policy would help Darwin export gas, while increasing supply to Queensland and the eastern seaboard to put downward pressure on prices for gas users.

The policy is designed to boost employment in Queensland, where the Coalition has used Labor’s indecision about whether to review and reject approvals for Adani’s Carmichael coalmine to argue the opposition prefers its inner-city environmental constituency to regional jobs.

Labor will also promise to change the rules around skilled visas both as a safeguard to prevent exploitation and to decrease the incentive for employers to hire foreign workers before Australians.

Labor would lift the minimum pay rate for foreign workers on temporary skilled visas from $53,900 to $65,000 and index the rate every year, if elected.

In a statement, Shorten and the shadow employment minister, Brendan O’Connor, said the fact the rate had been frozen since 2013 had eroded Australians’ job protection because “it has become cheaper to bring in an overseas worker than pay a local worker”.

“Around four out of five temporary skilled worker visas are granted for occupations where there is no shortage of skilled workers in Australia – this needs to change,” they said.

Labor would legislate to establish an independent Australian skills authority to restrict temporary work visas to jobs where there was a genuine skills shortage.

Labor would also crack down on under-qualified temporary workers by using registered training organisations to test workers before a visa was granted rather than relying on an immigration department assessment.

“These reforms improve fairness, equity, level the playing field for Australian workers, and protect jobs and wages,” Shorten and O’Connor’s statement said. “Only Labor has a plan to crackdown on 457-style visa rorts, ensure local workers are given the first shot at local jobs and invest in skills and training.”

As the Morrison government reduced Australia’s permanent migration intake from 190,000 to 160,000, Labor focused on the fact that 1.6 million people in Australia have visas which grant work rights, a key concern of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

In 2017, the Turnbull government reformed the temporary work visa systemby reducing the number of eligible occupations and creating a new temporary two-year visa to allow for workers to come to Australia for a length of time that does not give a pathway to permanent residency.

The $5bn Naif has so far committed only $1.3bn in concessional loans to 10 projects, and the auditor general has criticised the fund for lacking transparency and not treating projects consistently. In April 2017 the Coalition changed the rules to facilitate greater lending from the fund.

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