Australia first: Country overhauls visa program for skilled workers

Reddit co-founder: Immigration is personal to me
Reddit co-founder: Immigration is personal to me

Working in Australia as a foreigner is about to get tougher.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Tuesday that the country is overhauling a visa program that allows skilled workers from abroad to hold jobs for up to four years.

"We are an immigration nation. But the fact remains, Australian workers must have priority for Australian jobs," Turnbull said in a video announcement posted on Facebook.

The current visa program, known as 457, was intended to allow employers to plug gaps in the Australian labor market. It will be replaced by two temporary visas, one for two-year stays and another for four-year stays.

Related: H-1B visa applications decline for first time in 5 years

The number of eligible jobs for the visas will be cut from 651 to 435, and application fees will rise. The government said the visas will be restricted to filling critical skills shortages.

The new visas will require at least two years of previous work experience, better English language ability, stricter labor-market testing and a criminal background check.

Current 457 visa holders won't be affected by the changes, the government said. Around 96,000 people held the visas in Australia at the end of September, down nearly 8% from a year earlier, according to the latest official data.

malcolm turnbull australia
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Australian workers must have priority for Australian jobs.

India accounted for about 25% of the foreign citizens participating in the program, followed by the U.K. (20%) and China (6%).

Speaking at a press conference in Canberra shortly after the announcement, Turnbull said the decision to abolish the visa was made following a review of the system.

Related: Where millionaires are moving: Australia tops the list

Turnbull also announced the establishment of a new training fund to help Australians fill skills gaps that currently exist in the country.

Still, some immigration experts say the new visa requirements will have little overall impact on immigration levels in Australia.

"It seems like a lot of change, but it's more of a cosmetic [rebranding] than anything else," said Henry Sherell, a research officer at the Development Policy Center of the Australian National University. "A lot of the communication around this is political. They would've been able to achieve many of the changes they announced today under the current program."

He described the move as "clever politicking" by Turnbull to placate right-wing members of his coalition.

The move comes amid increased worldwide attention on Australia's immigration system, which was recently cited as a model for the U.S. by President Trump.

Trump said last month that he wants an immigration system like Canada's or Australia's -- one that's "merit-based" and ensures those entering the country can bolster the economy.

Trump is expected Tuesday to sign an executive order calling for a review of the U.S. H-1B visa program for skilled workers, with the goal of reforming the program, senior administration officials said.

Britain's move to exit the European Union has also created uncertainty about the future of migrant workers there.

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