Opposition Leader Tony Abbott last week declared “a national emergency on our borders”. The Prime Minister uses similar rhetoric and has announced a new “hard-line” policy. They are, of course, talking about asylum seekers arriving by boat.

But asylum seekers make up just 7% of the nearly 200,000 people who come to Australia each year under its combined migration and humanitarian program. What about the other 93% who decide to call Australia home — at least for a little while? It might be less dangerous than getting on a boat, but don’t assume it’s an easy process to secure working rights in Australia, even for educated, middle-class, English-speaking migrants.

A total of 198,757 visas were awarded through Australia’s combined migration and humanitarian program in 2011-2012. Of that figure, about 93% came as migrants, with 68% of them skilled migrants (about 32% are family members of residents, citizens or visa holders).

Wannabe Aussie workers have a few options, including the working holiday visa, the infamous employer-sponsored 457 visa for skilled workers (which is now more difficult to secure following new legislation), skilled independent and state-nominated visas (for those whose job titles are on the skilled occupation list) and skilled visas for workers in regional areas. Plus a stack of other confusing short- and long-term visas for media professionals, sportspeople and temporary workers.

“I’m a classic example of somebody of someone who doesn’t need to be here — I’ve got a happy life in the UK,” said Joanne (not her real name; Crikey agreed to use pseudonyms is this story so visa outcomes aren’t impacted), a specialist teacher who first arrived in Australia five years ago. “But I prefer the lifestyle here, and ideally long term I’d like to stay.”

In that time she’s been on a working holiday visa and a 457 visa, attempted to get a de facto visa (the relationship has since ended) and is now waiting for her second 457 visa to be approved, after finally securing a job with a company willing to sponsor her.

Workers with 457 visas have to continue to work in the same position at the company for two years before they can apply for permanent residency — and they have to remain at the job while their PR application is processed. “If you don’t enjoy your job, you’re stuffed,” noted Joanne, who left the first company that was sponsoring her on a 457 visa. “I felt exploited, to be perfectly frank. They had me by the balls, because it was either work this job or leave the country.”

“I’m working, I pay tax, I’m not eligible for Medicare. I guess you could argue I’m taking a job away from an Australian, but …”

New tightened regulations are a significant hurdle for those who want 457 visas. A company must now prove a “genuine skill need” for the position (including advertising the job for several months), cover the cost of sponsoring the employee, prove that it invests money in training Australian and permanent resident employees, plus a host of other changes. It’s an intimidating set of challenges, particularly for small businesses, and migration lawyers are expensive.

There are also pathways to permanent residency available to people who originally came to study; in 2011-2012 a whopping 30,978 of permanent residence visas were given to former student visa holders. However, with changes to the skilled occupation list, it is becoming more difficult to get a permanent visa off the back of a student visa.

Louise came to Australia as a student from North America  two years ago to complete a master’s degree. “As a student you’re living here, you obviously get attached, you make a home for yourself,” she told Crikey. Following the degree, a working holiday visa was the only option she had available to stay longer, because other working visas are only available to students who had studied for at least two years.

But the working holiday visa means she cannot stay in the same job — or even at the same company — for more than six months. She will also have to leave her home (and her Australian boyfriend) to move to the country for three months of farm work so she can extend her visa for another year — unless she’s soon able to secure a full-time job that is willing to sponsor her.

Louise currently works as a temp and volunteers several days a week at aid organisations in the hope of getting a permanent job; however, organisations have told her that since there are lots of qualified workers in that field, it would be difficult for them to both prove to the Immigration Department that they were unable to find an Australian to do the job and justify the cost and effort involved in sponsoring her, even if she is a perfect candidate.

“The working holiday visa as it stands now is for 19-year-olds from the UK,” said Louise, who acknowledges the Australian government clearly doesn’t want people like her to use them. Compare this with Canada and the UK, where Australians can get a two-year working holiday with very few restrictions on where they can work or for how long, offering more options to establish professional connections. Australians can even renew their two-year Canadian working holiday visas more than once. Only Australia has mandatory farm work. Yet despite this, the number of working holiday visas grew 15.6% — to 222,992 visas — in 2011-2012.

With a background in humanities, aid and policy, Louise’s talents aren’t in demand. She spent nearly $30,000 in school fees here; however, she is not eligible for any social services. “I’m working, I pay tax, I’m not eligible for Medicare. I guess you could argue I’m taking a job away from an Australian, but …”

It’s a paperwork and legal minefield if she wants to continue building her life here. “This is the least of Australia’s visa and immigration worries at the moment, but just from a selfish perspective it’s frustrating,” she told Crikey.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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