Australia's contentious "457" skilled-worker visa program will be abolished and replaced, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Tuesday.
“We will no longer allow 457 visas to be passports to jobs that could and should go to Australians,” Turnbull said. “We’re putting jobs first, and we’re putting Australians first.”
If the rhetoric sounds familiar, that's because it is. Donald Trump campaigned against the U.S. version of the 457, known as the H-1B, calling it a “cheap labor program.” His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has for years railed against H-1Bs and sponsored legislation, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), to effectively gut the program. Trump is reportedly expected to sign an executive order Tuesday that would restrict the number of H-1Bs available, mirroring Turnbull's announcement.
In both Australia and the United States, business groups have lobbied for the opposite. They argue that skilled-worker visas fulfill their intended purpose: allowing companies to fill positions for which locals with the requisite qualifications can't be found. But allegations that such visa programs have been misused have fueled a backlash as well as anti-immigrant sentiment.
Turnbull has proposed replacing the 457 visa with two new and more-temporary visas that would require higher language and professional skills. The number of occupations in which skilled-worker visas would be offered would drop from 650 to 435. The roughly 100,000 holders of 457 visas currently in Australia would not be affected.
The limiting of occupations for which the visa can be used gets at a major sore point for many Australians. A significant portion of the visas go to nurses, accountants, chefs, restaurant managers and teachers from abroad while Australians looking for jobs in those fields struggle to find them.
“Australia is the most successful multicultural nation in the world — we are an immigrant nation,” Turnbull said. “But the fact remains, Australian workers must have priority for Australian jobs.”
Michael Wall, the head of immigration practice at KPMG Australia, told the Sydney Morning Herald that there was no evidence that the current system was not working properly. “This move does not align with Australia's stated commitment to increasing innovation and causes uncertainty for foreign companies considering investing or doing business here,” he said.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions also took aim at the announcement, saying it carried “more spin than substance.”
H-1B visas bring 85,000 skilled workers to the United States every year. Most are from India, and most work in the information technology sector. Many shift jobs regularly but stay on long enough to get permanent-resident cards, or green cards.
For the first time in years, the number of H-1B applications has dropped: from 236,000 last year to 199,000 this year, according to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services statement Monday. The decline may reflect a wariness among U.S. employers and foreign workers that stems from the Trump administration's tough talk. Several bills sit before Congress that aim to curtail the H-1B program, but they wouldn't take effect until next year at the earliest.