Here’s a scenario to ponder: what would the our politicians do if a company from the Middle East wanted to open up a new coal mine in a marginal seat staffed by a pile of Chinese migrants on Section 457 work visas?

Dealing with the coal industry’s frenetic expansion during the resources boom in a carbon-heavy world and the circumstances in which foreign labour can enter Australia are two fascinating and politically tricky questions that will play out this year.

It is becoming increasingly apparent how big a role Section 457 visas are playing in containing a wages breakout. It is now expected that almost 100,000 of these visas will be issued in the two years before the federal election, and there are also flow-on effects – such as the incredibly tight rental markets across the country.

However, it’s not just resource companies in Queensland and Western Australia which are embracing the 457 visas.

Remember that old dotcom high flyer Sausage Software? It’s now consulting firm SMS Management and its share price has doubled over the past year. If you click on the profile button in CommSec, this is what you’re told in the first paragraph about “company strategy”:

This is a people intensive, low margin business that operates in a highly competitive market but can be highly profitable if staff utilisation rates are high. In order to manage stuff shortages and cost pressures SMS has become a sponsoring employer permitting to recruit up to 75 overseas staff under a 457 Visa.

Outgoing Rio Tinto CEO Leigh Clifford has complained that Western Australia has become one of the world’s most expensive places in the world to deliver projects, but the mining giant has 11,000 Australian employees and barely any on 457 visas.

We’re starting to hear more about the overall numbers, but what exactly are our best known companies doing? You hear snippets about labour hire firms and lots of private companies in industries such as meat processing but there hasn’t yet been a prominent listed company that has gone down the 457 path in a major way.

Julia Gillard made a good point on The 7.30 Report last night about the need for more accurate data on AWAs and the same applies with the 457 visa program.

We know that the NSW Health department is the biggest user of Section 457 visas but let’s try and build a list to track who is sponsoring these 100,000 guest workers.

Feedback to [email protected]

Peter Fray

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