​Labor proposes SMART plan for 457 visa reform

The federal opposition has proposed its own SMART reform to the 457 visa currently used by about 95,000 foreign workers to gain employment in Australia.

Federal Opposition leader Bill Shorten has responded to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's 457 visa reform by announcing his own plan to crack down on those "rorting" the system.

Included in Shorten's proposed plan is the introduction of a new visa reserved for "world-leaders" in Science, Medicine, Academia, Research, and Technology (SMART).

According to Labor, the SMART visa will allow universities, research institutes, medical, scientific, and advanced technology industries, companies, and public research agencies to "bring the best and brightest" into Australia from overseas.

The SMART visa will be good for four years and will be wrapped with appropriate salary safeguards, Labor said.

Similarly, Labor would introduce a new Science, High Tech, and Research visa that would allow Australian workers in the tech industry to "collaborate" with overseas counterparts.

Shorten's plan also includes the establishment of an Australian Skills Authority, which would replace the existing Ministerial Advisory Committee on Skilled Migration and would be an independent, labour market testing body that would determine genuine skills Australia needs and restrict temporary work visas to only those areas.

The authority would also be responsible for creating a Skills Shortage Occupations List in consultation with industry, unions, higher education providers including TAFE, as well as with state and local governments.

"In Australia today, with underemployment at record highs and young people across the country struggling to find work, it is only fair that Australians get the first crack at local jobs," a statement from the Labor Party reads.

"Australia needs a real plan to skill up Australian workers and connect them with local jobs -- reducing the need for business to rely on temporary workers from overseas."

In a plan explained as "putting local workers first", the Labor method would require employers to make genuine attempts to find local workers before turning to overseas talent. It would also increase the cost of a visa from AU$330 to AU$575 to incentivise employers to stay within Australia when hiring staff.

The relevant fees would also be increased to 3 percent of the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold for each year the visa is in place, Labor explained, which will result in a AU$1,617 annual charge.

With a focus on creating jobs for the future, Shorten's strategy also proposes the establishment of a SkillUP Training Fund in an effort to fill skills shortages.

"You can't have a plan for local jobs if you don't invest in the skills and training that people need to get those jobs," Labor's fact sheet reads. "Instead of developing a highly skilled Australian workforce, Australia has been relying on temporary workers, and Malcom Turnbull's con-job will do nothing to fix the issue."

Shorten previously announced his intention to create two new visa classes -- both capped at 2,000 international entrepreneurs -- to attract the "best global entrepreneurial talent" to help build Australia's growing startup ecosystem.

As part of his AU$2.5 billion pre-2016 election promise for future jobs, Shorten said Australia had the potential to be the startup, technology, and science capital of Asia by "supporting a new generation of innovators here, bringing great expats home, and attracting the best minds from around the world".

Labor's SMART plan follows the announcement Turnbull made last month to abolish the existing Temporary Work (Skilled) 457 visa and replace it with a new Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visa in March 2018.

The TSS visa program will comprise of two visa classes, Short-Term and Medium-Term, which will cover a foreign worker for two and four years respectively, with the latter reserved for more "critical" skills shortages. Additionally, applicants will be subjected to tightened English language and work experience tests, and must possess a clean criminal history. Applicants must also be under the age of 45.

Under the new visa scheme, 200 job categories have been reduced, impacting a handful of technology-related employment opportunities, including electronic engineering technicians, ICT support and test engineers, ICT support technicians, web developers, telecommunications cable jointers, and telecommunications technicians.

Speaking with the ABC a few days after the announcement to scrap the 457 visa was made, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Arthur Sinodinos said he did not want to see any unintended consequences trickle into Australia's tech sector and noted he was willing to "engage in a dialogue" with the local scene on the matter.

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