In the evidence for this inquiry, the Committee received a large number of suggestions for reform of the various visas available under Australia’s skilled migration program. This chapter focuses on what the Committee considered to be some of the key issues such as regional visas, the TSMIT, intra-company transfers, visa processing issues and international students.
Mr Mark Glazbrook stated that there needs to be reform of the existing structure of Australia’s migration program, as no regional business or key industry sector should ever be facing skills shortages.
Mr Glazbrook explained:
The skilled migration program should have clear objectives with measurable Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) which would then allow for beneficial reform to be enacted as necessary to improve program outcomes across all skilled migration programs to ensure that Australia maximises its economic opportunities deliverable through skilled migration.
Ms Linda Rowe from EY focused on the current opportunity for reform:
The pandemic provides an unprecedented opportunity for reform. The skilled migration program could better meet the needs of business and the economy and remain aligned with the aspirations of the Australian people.
According to the Government of South Australia, regional employers do not consider sponsoring skilled migrants as an effective means of accessing skilled workers:
Currently, the barriers, risks, costs, and timeframe to sponsor skilled migrants outweighs the benefits for many regional employers, and this is evidenced by the drastic decline in employer-sponsored visa grants in recent, pre-COVID, years. This needs to change urgently if the migration program is to enable businesses to access the skilled workers needed to facilitate economic growth.
KPMG noted that while many businesses ‘are feeling acute labour shortages in areas historically filled by temporary visa holders’, these shortages have been more ‘pronounced in the agriculture, tourism and hospitality industries, and especially in regional Australia’.
KPMG discussed the measures already in place to boost the regional workforce and address the existing labour shortages. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant border closures, KPMG noted that:
The Skilled Work Regional (Provisional) visa (subclass 491) permits state or territory-sponsored overseas workers to reside and work in a designated regional location for a period of five years. The visa also allows workers to apply for permanent residency after holding this visa and living and working in a designated regional location for at least three years.
Additionally, this visa is linked to the Regional Occupation List (ROL), which was discussed in Chapter 2. The occupations on the ROL apply only to rural and regional areas and include a pathway to permanent residency.
Ms Rachel Whiting of Regional Development Australia (RDA) Riverina outlined the work done to attract and retain people in regional areas to fill job vacancies as well as the importance of a multipronged approach:
We definitely promote the benefits of living regionally and of our region. We run a program around that as well. … I really think there needs to be a multifaceted approach, and skilled migration is a part of that, as is training our young people and encouraging them to consider careers in the region. It has to be everything.
In addition to the incentives for Australian jobseekers to take up work in the agricultural sector and the steps towards facilitating the entry of Pacific Islands agricultural workers, KPMG argued that more could be done to attract migrants to work in regional areas.
Specifically, KPMG recommended that:
The Australian Government could consider the removal of labour market testing for the employer sponsored streams and lower English language requirements in regional areas on a temporary basis to lower the barriers to bring in workers on temporary visas.
Ms Whiting explained that labour shortages existed prior to the pandemic and regional employers continue to face the challenge of filling job vacancies:
An average of 48 per cent of vacancies in the last 12 months were unfilled. That percentage hasn't really changed in a number of years.
Ms Amy Dainton from Goulburn Valley Health described the increased challenges of sponsoring migrants to work in regional areas, noting that 75 to 80 per cent of the medical workforce is comprised of skilled migrants.:
The changes to the Skilled Migration Program in 2018 have brought across some challenges with respect to the transition to permanent residency, in particular the use of ANZSCO codes and the labour market testing. We've found it difficult to recruit staff in certain disciplines due to some of those changes. There's a huge burden on the health service with respect to advertising and substantiating the fact that there are no Australian-trained local doctors available in the market, so we have to go to international. As a result, there's obviously a big cost to the organisation to employ overseas doctors with the visa cost.
Regional Australia Institute outlined the important role migration plays in regional Australia in filling prevailing skills shortages:
Migration is also vital for filling jobs in regional Australia. In February 2021 there were over 56,500 job vacancies across regional Australia. These are only jobs which are nationally advertised, it can be assumed that many more exist which have not been advertised or are only known locally. … The vacancy figures indicate that job needs in regional Australia are not being adequately met and that more needs to be done to encourage migrants to settle outside of capital cities.
Mr Andrew Kotzur, the Managing Director of Kotzur, a silo manufacturer and an employer in regional Australia, suggested that despite wanting to employ Australians, the low unemployment rates means he is dependent on skilled migration:
The time it takes to bring an employee on board is too long. Our business needs to be agile to move quickly in meeting changes in demand. At times we see contradiction between the advice given by agents representing migrants and the information published on the government websites. There is a public perception that skilled migrants are a lower-cost labour resource. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a large administrative cost, particularly in time, in meeting the labour market testing requirements and in obtaining sponsor accreditation. Additionally, there are costs with the government Skilling Australians Fund training levy, migration agents, remote recruitment et cetera.
Mr Kotzur also clarified that sponsoring a migrant is a last resort noting that ‘businesses that go down the path of skilled migration do so out of desperation and do incur significant additional costs’.
Mrs Whiting from RDA Riverina explained that the cut-off age for employer-sponsored nomination is 45 years and recommended that the age limit be increased for regional areas:
The retirement age in Australia is now over 65. Many businesses need skilled migrants to fulfil supervisory roles. Therefore skills and experience are what is needed. We believe that up to 55 is suitable for some occupations. We would like to lift the age limit in skills of great demand. In addition, from a population growth perspective, workers between 45 and 55 tend to be well established and have families that also choose to live and work in the regional location that they are living in. We call for an extension of the cut-off age for skilled migration, in some occupations and in regions of need, to 55.
In relation to attracting or retaining temporary migrants already in regional areas of Australia, KPMG recommended:
…the Australian Government could introduce temporary concessions such as an older age limit and similar to temporary visas, lower English language requirements for visa holders applying for permanent residency in regional areas to stop the flow of migrants out of the country when their temporary visa ends.
KPMG elaborated on the recommendation to reduce English language requirements:
At the moment, for certain occupations, if you're looking at an IELTS result, you need at least seven in each of the four components. Perhaps that could be reduced down to six or 6.5, which would attract especially international students, who require the higher points for English. If there was some type of concession for them to receive a lower English score and then move to a regional area, that would be quite a positive move and we'd see a lot more international students moving out into regional areas for employment.
AMES recommended that the Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional visa (subclass 494) ‘be made more accessible by reducing the skilled work experience requirement’ and widening the Regional Occupations List (ROL) to better support real skill shortages in regional areas.
Susan Denny, Jane Elliot, Faye Rouse, Sue Rainsford, Taylor Jackson and Rayleen Wright similarly made recommendations for the reform of the subclass 494 subclass visa to assist regional employers to access the skilled workers required to support regional economies during the COVID-19 pandemic recovery:
Lower threshold requirements to mirror the [subclass 482] visa including no age restriction.
Remove criteria requiring genuine, full time position likely to exist for five years as no business can predict business operations over such a lengthy period. Such an offer is more beneficial than that offered to local staff.
Align the need for skills assessments to ANZSCO to allow experience in lieu of qualifications (particularly relevant to agriculture workers including farm managers).
Visa to be granted for 4 years with a pathway to permanency available after two years.
Allow secondary family members to live in other areas as children in particular should not be prohibited from leaving the designated area to attend university or other post-secondary schooling.
Susan Denny et al further argued that Regional Certifying Bodies (RCB) should be abolished. In their view, RCBs approach their certifying role inconsistently, lack accountability, and ‘only serve to add additional paperwork to an already complicated’ application process.
Similarly, Milestone Migration told the Committee that including RCBs in the process ‘has added more red-tape and cost to a regional employer versus using the other visa programs’.
The Government of South Australia provided a list of potential reforms that, in its view, would boost the uptake of regional employer sponsored visas:
Review the eligibility requirements to ensure they are not limiting regional businesses ability to sponsor skilled migrants, this includes excessive mandatory Skills Assessment requirements, work experience, or qualification requirements.
Review the end-to-end process with a view to simplification, including labour market testing requirements, labour agreement negotiation, and nomination and visa application processes.
Revise the Skilling Australia Fund levy to ensure it is not prohibitively expensive for small regional businesses, and reconsider the point of levy collection so regional employers do not have to bear the cost if they do not receive a positive visa grant outcome.
According to Milestone Migration, the 494 visa ‘is one of the least attractive visa options to potential applicants’. Given the requirement for mandatory skill assessment and higher English language requirements, Milestone stated that ‘it does not satisfy the needs of regional Australia’.
Mapien also proposed that strong consideration be given to increasing the employer nominated permanent visa age limit to 50 years. Mapien explained:
This cohort of visa holders represent employees who have extensive experience in their fields and who may just be entering a stage in their careers where they hold positions which would allow them to make a greater contribution to their Australian employers. This cohort may also be more likely to have school aged children, and the perceived inability to permanently settle in Australia (if this is a driver in the relocation decision) will continue to be a major deterrent in trying to attract this talent given the disruption and impacts to family members.
In both this inquiry and the inquiries into migration in regional Australia and the Working Holiday Maker program, the Committee has heard repeatedly about the persistent nature of skills shortages in Australia’s regional areas. Additionally, the circumstances of skills shortages in regional areas are often distinct from those in metropolitan areas. Not only in terms of the industries subject to these shortages, such as agriculture and mining, but also in terms of the impact that shortages have on local economies and communities.
As such, the Committee sees a need to continue the practice of offering specific regional visas to sponsors and migrants. In the context of restarting the migration program and COVID-19 pandemic economic recovery, it is important for regional communities and economies that potential migrants to regional areas are able to access concessions on the current visa conditions.
Additionally, given the persistent nature of skills shortages in regional areas, and the limited pool of potential labour available, sponsors should also be able to access concessions to ensure they are able to access a more streamlined process for employing skilled migrants.
The Committee recommends that the Government provide further concessions for temporary regional visas, including:
Labour Market Testing advertising can be up to 12 months before lodging a nomination application
Raise the age limit to 50
English language requirements at vocational English
Reduction of prior experience required in occupation to 2 years and
Priority visa processing.
Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold
The Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold (TSMIT) currently sits at $53,900 AUD. Home Affairs explained the administrative requirements around minimum salaries for sponsored employees:
Sponsored employees must be paid the annual market salary rate (AMSR) as per the relevant fair work instrument, state industrial instrument or transitional instrument. The AMSR cannot be lower than the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold (TSMIT), currently $53,900.
Home Affairs further explained that this salary requirement was ‘to help to ensure that overseas workers are not paid less than what an Australian worker would be paid, doing the same work in the same location’.
The policy is also intended to help ensure that skilled overseas workers have reasonable means of support while in Australia. Home Affairs noted that the AMSR does not apply to positions with annual earnings of over $250,000.
The TSMIT amount of $53,900 AUD has not been changed since 2013. There were a range of views received in evidence on whether the TSMIT should be increased. Evidence such as that from the CFMEU suggested that the TSMIT be immediately increased.
Dr Jane O’Sullivan proposed that the TSMIT be raised to ‘at least the 75th percentile of weekly full time earnings.’ Dr O’Sullivan noted that the TSMIT currently sits below the median Australian wage income and that at this level ‘…skilled and experienced migrant workers are undercutting qualified Australian job-seekers.’
The Committee for Adelaide had a different view, stating that the TSMIT for some jobs, particularly in regional locations, is too high and does little to acknowledge the reality of wage conditions in locations where living costs are lower than in metropolitan areas.
Mr Andrew Kotzur suggested the possibility of a two-tiered TSMIT, depending on whether the business is located in a rural or regional area, or in a city.
The Regional Australia Institute noted that the costs involved in the sponsorship for employers can be prohibitive for small and medium regional businesses:
This can include the level of the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold as well as the cost involved for migration agents, payment of the Skilling Australia Fund levy at the point of application and other associated costs.
The Law Council of Australia noted the fact that many Designated Area Migration Agreements (DAMA) included concessions to the TSMIT which could indicate that the TSMIT ‘is not an appropriate minimum salary figure in regional Australia.’
For many regional businesses, the requirement to pay a base salary equal to TSMIT in order to sponsor a person on a temporary or provisional work visa prevents them from being able to sponsor workers and fill skill gaps, unless they are able to access a DAMA.
The Law Council recommended either abolition of the TSMIT or that there be a distinct income threshold for positions in regional locations.
Evidence from the Department of Home Affairs (Home Affairs) suggests that there is also a relatively small number of people being paid the TSMIT. For 2019-20, 12,044 nominations of a base salary between $53,900 and $62,000 were approved. A total of 145 nominations were approved under a Labour Agreement during the 2019-20 program year with a base salary of less than $53,900 per annum.
In the Committee’s view, it is important that the TSMIT reflects current working conditions and rates of pay in the Australian economy. Given that it has not increased since 2013, it is in need of an update.
The Committee also notes that the Government already has a path towards affecting an increase to the TSMIT in the Review of the Temporary Skilled Migrant Income Threshold report. Any increase in the TSMIT should be done gradually and also take into account regional variations in average wages and cost of living.
In the same way that many DAMAs provide for concessions on the TSMIT, any increase in the TSMIT should take account of the needs of regional areas and ensure that regional employers seeking skilled migrants are not disadvantaged.
The Government should revisit the recommendations of the Review of the Temporary Skilled Migrant Income Threshold (TSMIT) (2017) in order to increase the TSMIT. Such a change should be made with consideration of exemptions or different rates for jobs in regional areas.
Australia’s international education sector is regarded as a significant economic contributor on both the national and regional levels. Universities Australia noted that Australia has built a robust international education sector that delivers high quality education to students from approximately 140 countries and is ranked third most popular destination country behind the US And UK.
The international education sector is Australia’s largest service-based export industry which, from 2019-20, contributed $37.5 billion and supported approximately 250,000 jobs.
In the post-COVID-19 climate, international travel restrictions have constrained the intake of international students to Australia. KPMG noted that these current conditions present an opportunity to market Australia as an attractive destination for international students as competition for such students will become more intense.
Mr Rupert Grayston from the Australian Computer Society noted the level of competition from other countries and highlighted the link between higher education and skilled migration:
We clearly have some very strong and rigorous competition from the UK, Canada and the US. It's coupled with higher education. Higher education combined with skilled migration is a big drawcard.
Universities Australia stated that 84 per cent of international students and graduates return to their home countries after receiving a recognised, Australian university qualification.
The Australian Technology Network of Universities argued that although the possibility of international students staying in (or returning to) Australia to undertake skilled work is an important factor for their decision to study in Australia, returning to their home countries also provides an ‘expected’ positive outcome. The Australian Technology Network of Universities stated:
Students returning home multiply the global connections with Australia, benefiting Australian businesses operating internationally, our standing in the international community and our research network. However, a balance is needed to ensure that Australia can retain and grow knowledge and skills in Australia as well.
Evidence provided to the Committee suggested that Australia’s attractiveness for international students may be diminishing and has recently been overtaken by other competitors.
ACCI noted concerns that for reasons such as travel bans and faster vaccine rollouts, overseas countries are becoming a more attractive destination than Australia.
Some key competitors, such as the UK, Canada and the US, recently made alterations to their migration settings that consider a more ‘open’ approach to their policies on international students amidst the pandemic. Universities Australia stated that a failure to respond to the various incentives offered by other competitor countries may significantly impact Australia’s knowledge workforce, particularly as the nation seeks to rebound from COVID-19.
Box 3.1: Postgraduate work rights
In September 2019 the UK introduced a ‘graduate immigration route’ which permits international students completing their studies after the 2021 UK summer to reside in the country to live and work in any field, at any level.
In Canada, international students who graduated from an eligible institution are able to apply for a ‘post-graduation work permit’, allowing the student to reside and work in Canada for three years.
In the US, significant reforms are currently being made to the immigration system. Although some reforms are yet to be implemented, one includes removing limits on employer-based visas by country and broadening visa options for highly skilled international students. In addition, pathways to permanency for STEM graduates will be easier and will not be counted in green card allocation caps.
KPMG’s 2020 report, Pathways to Recovery: International Students Will Boost Our Living Standards also expressed a view that by marketing Australia as a more attractive destination for international students, the benefits are twofold: Australia’s ageing population will become more balanced and the nation’s skills base will begin to augment.
One issue for attracting international students in Australia is creating a migration setting which provides international students a viable pathway to permanent residency, which includes consolidating post-study work rights.
Nativas argued that the points system for permanent residency be adjusted to increase its attractiveness as a pathway for international graduates:
…targeted and timebound changes to the points allocation for specific categories could provide a more attractive and achievable pathway for those that have studied in Australian higher education institutions. This would support increasing access temporarily to a group of individuals that have multiple years’ experience studying, working and living in Australia (and are therefore already accustomed to and supportive of Australian values)’.
In this regard, Dr George Tan, Associate Professor Andrew Taylor and Professor Ly Tran called for concessions to the points test and employment requirements for international graduates on 485 visas seeking to make the transition to a permanent visa.
According to KPMG, the current points system could be adjusted to take account of other factors:
Perhaps there could be other areas—in terms of their results, their achievements at university—which would then allow them to get additional points, or even consideration of removing the points system and doing it more on the basis of legislative criteria. So if you've studied in Australia for a period of two years and you achieved a certain requirement, then you would have a faster pathway to permanent residency.
Dr John Wellard from Universities Australia provided a comparison between the post-study work rights in Australia and the UK:
… the UK, which has reintroduced post-study work rights at the graduate route, which started this year. The major difference between their post-study work rights and ours is that students who have done a one-year post-graduate course can apply for a post-study work visa in the UK, whereas in Australia you have to have done at least two years. At the end of the day our view would be that we need post-study work rights that best suit Australia, but we always keep an eye on what's happening in other countries.
Mrs Belinda Wright from KPMG reflected on some of the challenges for international students in finding skilled employment:
So obtaining the necessary work rights might need longer than the two-year work requirement that’s on that visa. It is quite difficult to obtain a graduate position when you don’t hold permanent residence status in Australia. So, finding that placement can take longer than 12 months, which then would only allow them an additional 12 months to get the additional work experience required to apply for permanent residency.
In Australia, international graduates are able to apply through the Temporary Graduate (subclass 485) visa stream post-graduation, allowing students to reside and work in Australia for two to four years, depending on the level of qualification. There are special conditions under this visa for international graduates who studied and will work in a regional location, which is an extension of stay for up to two years. Currently, students affected by international border closures are studying online and offshore to retain post-study work rights eligibility.
The AHA and TAA welcomes these changes, and argued that they should be applied to more international graduates:
…this was only for degree-level or above in nominated courses not relevant to our sector. We believe that the 485 Graduate work stream should also be extended to two years and/or the relevant practical experience during studies should count towards the calculation of two years’ work experience. The AHA and TAA believe that this change in counting experience and employment history should only be available to international students undertaking a minimum Certificate IV qualification in a CRICOS registered course at an Australian institution’.
According to MIA graduate international students have been undergoing more ‘circuitous, work experience heavy’ pathway to permanent residency through the Temporary Graduate (subclass 485) visa. MIA argued that the connection between international graduates and direct permanent migration was largely broken by changes in 2012, but has been further exacerbated by border closures.
Further, according to MIA:
While the loss in the export market is already evident, the lack of graduating students as a source of skilled labour will not begin to become substantially apparent until 2023/2024 and beyond.
Mrs Belinda Wright from KPMG noted that since Australia is trying to attract the best and brightest, high-performing individuals should receive a type of endorsement through the migration program to receive placements within Australian businesses.
The Committee considers that Australia should be trying to attract the best and brightest international students who have studied here, to stay here, particularly to fill persistent skills shortages in the economy.
The Home Affairs’ report, Australia’s Migration Trends 2019-20 highlights, noted that of the 140,366 permanent residency placements offered through the Migration Program, 16,588 were former student visa holders and 16,424 graduate visa holders. These results indicate that close to a quarter of the allocated permanent residence placements awarded under the Migration Program were previous international students.
The Committee suggests that consideration of the post-study work rights for international students may be of value particularly in light of what is available in competitor countries such as the UK.
The Committee sees value in ensuring that of the international students who study in Australia, those achieving at the highest level and those who are undertaking courses in areas where there are persistent skills shortages are provided with a clear pathway to permanency.
The Committee considers this could take the form of concessions to post-study work rights which provide more flexibility for the student and a clearer path to permanent residency based on the student meeting a range of criteria and safeguards to ensure that the system is not being rorted by students or universities.
Finally, the issue of international student graduates holding 485 visas who are stuck offshore due to border closures arose during the public hearings. Students have raised concerns publicly and directly with some members of the Committee about the expiry of their 485 visas before they are able to come to Australia, thus losing the ability to work in Australia and the ability to pursue skilled and permanent visas. Home Affairs acknowledged the issue and the Committee considers this issue warrants further consideration by Home Affairs and Government.
The Committee recommends the Government consider changes to post-study work arrangements for a subset of international student graduates where those graduates have:
Undertaken a university course (or a course run by a reputable non-university higher education provider) leading to a job in an occupation with a persistent skills shortage
Demonstrated excellence for instance by graduating in the top ten per cent of all graduates in their course or achieving first class honours
Met relevant English language standards
On graduation, worked in a job that is relevant to their field of study with a persistent skills shortage
Such graduates would be eligible for a discount on the work experience component for permanent residency under the employer nominated scheme from three years to two years.
For graduates applying for a points-based visa, additional points could be awarded for those graduates meeting the above criteria.
The Government should also consider longer temporary graduate visas of three years to provide time and flexibility for graduates to find work.
As a special integrity measure the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency should undertake special and regular audits of the assessment of excellence measure to ensure standards are maintained.
The Committee received evidence about intra-company transfers. Intra-company transferees are distinct from other applicants as they are sponsored by a business to fill a specific occupation requiring specialised, proprietary knowledge. The proprietary skills and experience are unable to be sourced locally in Australia’s labour market, besides in the Australian business itself.
Austrade clients report that the current timeframes for completing labour market testing (LMT) places limits on the ability of Australian companies to compete internationally for talent quickly.
The Committee for Economic Development Australia (CEDA) recommends that Home Affairs immediately introduce a ‘dedicated, streamlined path’ for intra-company transfers to Australia. CEDA noted this would ‘enable trusted users of the migration system with a strong local presence to bring global executives to Australia to lead major business expansions and build local workforce capability’.
The Law Council of Australia supported the view that Home Affairs consider opportunities to introduce a ‘dedicated, streamlined path for intra-company transfer of employees to Australia’.
The Government of South Australia echoed a similar viewpoint:
The Government of South Australia urges the Department of Home Affairs to consider the opportunities for the existing visa products to facilitate more efficient intra-company transfers of staff, so that companies in Australia with head offices overseas can rapidly relocate staff from overseas to Australia for short and temporary periods to meet business needs.
According to Fragomen, incorporating a TSS stream that includes an intra-company transfer stream for multinational businesses will support effective trade and investment as it:
Ensures Australia remains an active player in the global economy, contributing to the economic benefits to Australia and its nationals
Demonstrates that Australia is ‘open for business and investment’
Reflects Australia’s commitments under various international agreements
Is consistent with the practice in other developed economies
Creates job opportunities for Australians in Australia
Creates job opportunities for Australians overseas
Contributes to reversing the impact of highly skilled Australians working overseas for extended periods.
In a survey conducted by Fragomen with its clients, 85 per cent of business respondents viewed intra-company transfer visas as an important priority for Australia’s immigration framework, agreeing that:
Having a separate visa for intra-company transfers would better recognise the prerequisite proprietary knowledge and skills brought by such staff
International assignments for intra-company transfers are part of a career development strategy with reciprocal benefits to Australians
Intra-company transfers should be accorded priority processing under existing arrangements.
Fragomen offered a further recommendation to introduce a dedicated intra-company transfer visa, especially in growth sectors in recognition of the ‘unique difference of intra-corporate transfers from other new entrants to the domestic labour market’. Fragomen noted that other competitor jurisdictions such as the US, UK, Singapore and Canada commonly use intra-company transfer visas to help multinational companies develop global mobility.
Fragomen suggested that by not embracing a dedicated intra-company transfer visa stream, Australia’s competitiveness for talent will diminish compared to other jurisdictions.
The Committee recommends that Government enable intra-company transfer of executive employees of multinational companies to Australia where necessary for these companies to expand their operations in Australia. Streamlining should include an exemption from labour market testing. This measure should be subject to other strict integrity measures. Consideration should be given to whether a separate visa category is necessary to enable intra-company executive transfers.
Visa processing timeframes
The Northern Territory Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade (DITT) expressed a view on the issues surrounding TSS and employer-sponsored visas, having received feedback from local businesses and their concerns with the long timeframes associated with processing Designated Area Migration Agreement (DAMA) applications.
DITT stated that hospitality businesses would prefer to hire local workers to avoid unnecessary costs and visa administrative processes; however, local workers have been unwilling to work within the industry. As such, hospitality businesses need to source skilled migrants to address shortages. Particularly in regional Australia, industries are transient by nature and reliant on TSS visa holders, where processing delays and unsuccessful applications impose financial and emotional stress on businesses and visa holders.
KPMG told the Committee that the current processing time for the global talent visa is 90 days. According to KPMG:
This does not include the [expression of interest] timeframe and is much longer than other jurisdictions who promise fast-tracked processing under similar schemes of two weeks.
Additionally, KPMG noted that the processing times for some Business Innovation and Investment visas is ‘extensive and unsustainable and acts as a significant disincentive to investors’. These investors, particular those with high-net worth, ‘may consider investment in Australia “too difficult” and opt to set up their businesses or invest their wealth’ elsewhere.
As a result, KPMG recommended the establishment of key performance indicators for visa processing times, and ‘accrediting specialist third parties to review visa eligibility’. According to KPMG, this would make these visa categories more ‘adaptable and responsive to market changes in growth sectors’.
The Government of South Australia noted that it had ‘heard from regional employers who have been waiting well over the published’ processing times for visa grants.
The Government of South Australia saw a need for enhanced capacity in Home Affairs ‘to implement and oversee a strong employer-sponsored skilled migration program’. According to the Government of South Australia:
This requires a renewed emphasis on resources to maintain integrity over the program, rather than relying on restrictive requirements, cost and processes that effectively limit uptake.
Navigating the system
ACCI commented on the barriers that businesses face in accessing the skilled migration program. Specifically, ACCI noted that the ‘frequent changes to the standard employer sponsored migration program’, such as new visa classes and labour agreements, has led to ‘employers finding it hard to understand the process, eligibility and suitability’ of the skilled migration program.
In this regard, ACCI told the Committee that:
The Industry Outreach Officers Program, which was discontinued in 2014, was a highly regarded and valuable program that attached experienced migration professionals from the Department to industry employer bodies. The program assisted employers to navigate the system, understand and overcome the barriers, and provided guidance to ensure business are aware of their obligations and requirements as a sponsor.
According to ACCI, this program assisted in building trust and strengthening the relationship between Home Affairs and industry. ACCI stated that ‘given the increased complexity in the system, the program will be even more valuable than before’.
The Motor Trades Association of Australia (MTAA) was one of the organisations that received an outplacement officer during the Industry Outreach Officers Program. According to MTAA, it was a ‘brilliant exercise’:
They became a reference point which enabled businesses to channel their queries through to the [MTAA]. Invariably, that came from the individual business to one of my member associations. They cascaded that up to this outposted officer, who spent a couple of days a week in the MTAA office. They would provide the necessary information, including the coordination of touchpoints.
Support for the reintroduction of liaison officers was also identified by Ramsay Health Care Australia:
With the previous system several years ago we would have had a direct contact and we would have been able to identify which case officer was looking at a file and see their contact details to discuss any specific issues. Also in the past businesses such as ours had access to a liaison from the department. We would have been able to contact them with any particular issues that were coming up. Unfortunately, we haven't had such a system for a number of years now. That's definitely something that would benefit businesses such as ours, particularly given the size of our recruitment and our use of the program. It would definitely be of assistance if we had a particular contact person. I think that would be of benefit for most accredited sponsors in that program.
This view was also supported by the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association.
More generally, MTAA noted feedback from its membership that most businesses, particularly smaller businesses, are ‘very put off by the complexity’. These businesses ‘don’t have the time and resources to spend hours trying to find the information they need’.
Clubs Australia sought feedback from its member clubs and found that many clubs were being contracting migration agents to access the skilled migration program due to the complexity of the system. Mr Simon Sawday added:
Reforms are also necessary to remove unnecessary red tape and make the system more accessible for clubs. We support measures that would make the system more simple and transparent so clubs can access the system themselves rather than relying on costly services.
The need for open and timely communication channels between Home Affairs and sponsoring organisations is particularly important for specialised industries such as healthcare. Regional health service, Goulburn Valley Health highlighted how ineffective the current communication practice is:
At the moment, you can wait hours if you ring the 131 number. They took away the ability to speak to case officers when trying to ask for advice. They became very stringent, where they wouldn't speak over the phone—it was email only—and they weren't providing advice to the health services and nominators. You had to seek third-party advice, again, with additional fees if you need to go to a migration lawyer to ask a question. The 457 visa branch, located in Melbourne previously used to meet with all medical workforce managers in Victoria on an annual basis to assist us… That has since stopped for a number of years.
Greenham, a meat processing business, identified communication as one of the top three priority areas for reform of the skilled migration program, noting that the objective should be to allow ‘the end users to get on with what they are good at—and that isn't bureaucracy’.
Greenham also highlighted that engaging migration agents does not result in greater responsiveness or engagement with Home Affairs. They noted that recently:
[O]ur migration agent sought feedback on no less than 19 occasions, only to receive two template responses and no response on 17 other occasions. Business cannot plan with response rates such as these.
Home Affairs noted that it has business industry and regional outreach officers in place:
It's distinct from the industry outreach program in that they're not embedded, if you like, in a particular industry or sector, but they are available for those purposes which you describe to make sure people have got information about how the system works and to understand what different sectors are thinking about regarding migration.
In terms of time-poor businesses accessing information directly from officials about the migration program, Home Affairs noted that in line with broader government initiatives it has been moving towards encouraging digital self-service.
While Home Affairs still maintains ‘a dedicated call centre that provides a level of service’, as well as providing for ‘interaction on an individual visa application process’, there is no place for sponsors to access general advice ‘in part because there are restrictions on our ability to provide individualised advice to applicants’.
In regard to making and processing applications, Home Affairs noted that their current ‘core visa processing systems are 25 to 30 years old’, and that while it would ‘like to be in a position to offer a much better level of service’, even simple things like the provision of push messaging via SMS is ‘far more complicated than it should be’.
From the evidence received during this inquiry, it is clear to the Committee that the skilled migration program is complex and difficult to navigate.
The Committee received evidence outlined both here and in the Interim Report that many skilled visas are difficult to apply for, information is hard to understand for most sponsors and that once an application is made processing times both lack transparency and are lengthy.
The Committee believes that improvements must be made to the way the program is administered if this perception is to change. Some of the necessary improvements are relatively simple. In order for sponsors and businesses to access accurate and timely information, reinstating the industry liaison officer program could provide an immediate boost to the accessibility of information. The work of the new industry liaison officers would not be purely focussed on providing advice to sponsors and applicants. The industry liaison officers could also provide Home Affairs with more information about the workforce challenges faced by the industry they are liaising with direct from the coalface.
Further, the Committee sees a need for a greater capacity for sponsors and individuals to have a point of contact within Home Affairs for skilled visa related questions. Notwithstanding Home Affairs’ evidence that there is some capacity for interaction in regard to individual visa applications, the Committee believes that greater effort and resources should be put into ensuring that individuals and businesses have the capacity to quickly and easily engage with Home Affairs on the skilled migration program.
As such, the Committee sees the need to enable greater resources to be made available for direct interaction with departmental officials, as well as an immediate update to the legacy software to facilitate improved functionality both for Home Affairs and for applicants and sponsors.
At the time that the Committee had completed its work and its draft report, answers to some questions on notice from the 25 June public hearing remain outstanding from the Home Affairs. Once received the Committee will publish these on its website.
The Committee recommends that the Department of Home Affairs update their visa processing system to ensure a more streamlined visa application process for applicants and employers.
The Committee recommends that the Department of Home Affairs undertake to improve their customer service in the skilled migration program with consideration given to:
Establishing industry liaison officers to assist businesses in navigating the skilled migration program and provide feedback to the Department on emerging conditions in industry
Provision of a specialist triage system to provide advice on complex visa applications including
Making officials available to discuss visa applications over the phone
Allowing skilled visa applicants and employers the opportunity to correct minor discrepancies without having to restart the application.