Australia Looks to Toughen Worker Visa Laws Ahead of Election

Australia plans to toughen laws that allow overseas workers to plug short-term labor needs and skills shortages as some employers are exploiting the system, Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor said.

“There is no reason why we wouldn’t be looking to properly protect the efficacy and integrity of this scheme by way of legislation,” O’Connor said in a Sky Television interview today. “What we’ve got to do is really remove the loopholes.”

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s ruling Labor party is seeking to gain momentum with voters before the Sept. 14 election after trailing in opinion polls for more than 18 months. The so-called 457 visa program has been backed by mining magnate Gina Rinehart as necessary to fill labor shortfalls that may threaten the nation’s investment pipeline that reached $280 billion as of Oct. 31, according to a government research department.

The number of the lowest-paid 457 visa holders, working in the lodging and food services industries, has almost doubled in the past year, O’Connor said in a separate statement today. Australia had 105,600 457 visa holders as of March 31, up 19 percent from the year before, Department of Immigration and Citizenship figures released today show.

“My focus is ensuring we have a 457 scheme that is legitimate, to ensure that the employers who use it properly are not disadvantaged against those employers that use it improperly,” O’Connor said. It’s important “Australian citizens and permanent residents get the first options for employment before we look overseas,” he said.

Australia’s Richest

Rinehart, Australia’s richest person, sparked union criticism after getting government approval last May to hire more than 1,700 overseas workers on her Roy Hill iron ore project in Western Australia.

Gillard is attempting to boost her minority government’s economic credentials, which were damaged when a slump in tax revenue forced her in December to abandon a pledge to return the May 14 budget to surplus.

The nation’s first female leader faces the challenge of rebalancing a two-speed economy where mining regions in the north and west thrive off Chinese demand, while manufacturing and tourism in the south and east struggle. Employers cut payrolls more than forecast in March, with the jobless rate unexpectedly increasing to 5.6 percent, the highest level since November 2009, government data showed April 11.

Labor’s support remained at 45 percent on a two-party preferred basis, while Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition held at 55 percent, according to a Newspoll published in the Australian newspaper on April 23.