FAHRENHEIT 457 – The Australian Government’s decision to abolish the 457 visas for foreign workers in areas of skills shortages could be seen as a piece of Trumpian economic populism, except that – or maybe because? – it’s more theatrics than substance and so it’s fake populism, which won’t make anyone happy.

Some 95,000 457 visa holders currently in Australia, working jobs that Australians can’t do, constitute less than one percent of the Australian workforce. Are they really working jobs that Australian’s can’t do, or are they actually taking Australian jobs – are “unscrupulous” employers importing cheaper professional labour from overseas to the detriment of qualified locals? There seems to be an awful lot of political rhetoric on this point, as well as lots of anecdotes, but no one seems to be able to convincingly prove either way. The 457s have been explicitly designed to complement, not compete with, local workforce – if they in fact are, it’s clearly either a problem of design, implementation or enforcement, not the policy.

The 457 visa is now being replaced with another 457 visa, which has the stylistic benefit of not being called the 457 visa. It reduces the number of jobs that qualify, it halves the term from 4 to 2 years, it introduces more stringent English language requirements, and it denies the visa holders the option of applying for permanent residency at the end of their term. One could argue that highly qualified, hard working migrants are exactly the type we want in this country, unless someone can prove that far from addressing shortages we are actually oversupplying certain job types or that in the longer term we are harming domestic graduates whose numbers might have in the meantime increased in order to meet particular skills shortages. Again, less politics and more data would be useful.

Labor and the unions are not impressed with the reform, since for them everything is always too little and too late. Employers who use the 457s are likely to be equally but oppositely unhappy. Time – and polls – will tell if the Australian people, who are overwhelmingly not directly affected either way by this issue, enjoy enough the new populism of the Turnbull government.

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