With 1.1 million people on temporary work visas in Australia, it is undeniable that the country’s economy benefits greatly from migration.
But at a time where all is uncertain and borders are closed, what does the landscape look like for both employers in need of talents and candidates willing to work?
Matthew Garvey, Immigration expert & Director at Four Corners, a top migration leader, shares his thoughts on the Australian immigration status quo, as well as his predictions for how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the future of migration.
Currently, visa applications for both permanent and temporary employer sponsored visas are being accepted by the Department Of Home Affairs (DOHA). The department has said that it will be focusing on processing visa applications from people who are already in Australia.
Having said that, visa processing times for applicants who are already in Australia are much slower than normal. We are seeing some 482 visa applications taking over 3 months rather than the approx. 4 weeks we were experiencing earlier this year.
We are also seeing Standard Business Sponsorship (SBS) applications and even nominations approved but not the corresponding visa applications.
So even though there is some work happening and progress can be seen, it isn’t always helping the employer, sponsor or the visa applicant, as their visa has not yet been granted.
Permanent residence applications through visa subclass 186 of the employer nomination scheme for onshore applicants are being processed and PR visas granted.
This is good news as it gives people in Australia some certainty and security about being here long-term.
I would encourage all people already here in Australia who are eligible to apply for PR to do so. Once granted, it means your right to be in Australia is no longer linked to your employment and that can be important in the current economic situation.
As frustrating as it may sound, onshore applicants will be processed as soon as possible.
Applicants who are offshore or overseas face an even more uncertain process.
Whilst you can still lodge applications, visas are not being issued as the DOHA does not want to grant visas whilst travel bans are in place. The thought behind this is that they don’t want people overseas holding valid visas but unable to travel due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
This means that offshore applicants will have to wait longer until their visas are granted.
In such times, it is impossible to forecast how long this wait will be. However, we are witnessing clients still lodging applications having taken a view that they want to be in the queue already when things do start moving again.
Exemptions to the Travel Ban
There are some exemptions to the travel ban, and most often than not, this involves “essential workers”. Essential workers are medical staff involved with the COVID-19 pandemic efforts and workers working on critical infrastructure projects.
These essential workers are able to apply for an exemption to the travel ban before they fly. If given permission, then they are able to travel to Australia, but must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
Permission to be able to travel or getting an exemption to the travel ban is not guaranteed. The process is done online and the time frames to receive a response vary widely. But it is important to note that requests can be lodged prior to visa application lodgement or visa grants.
We have witnessed people of various essential professions being granted exemptions, and others with the same role not be for no evident reason. The department is being incredibly strict on this, and no-one should assume that they will automatically be granted an exemption based on their role.
We have also heard of 457 & 482 visa holders who happened to be overseas when the travel ban was introduced not being allowed back into Australia. And this despite the fact of having leases, families and pets still in Australia.
In such uncertainty, the lucky ones are those already in Australia. This applies to both the employer and the sponsored employee.
However, not all hope is lost. Australian businesses can still source the skills they need that they cannot find from their local market and overseas workers can remain in Australia and work. Let’s find out how…
What can employers or sponsors do now if they want to sponsor someone?
Employers looking to sponsor employees on 482 temporary residence visas or 186 Permanent Residence Visas can still submit applications. However, the outcome will mainly depend on where the visa applicant is located.
Applicants located in Australia
Theoretically these applications are not impacted by COVID-19 and travel bans in place. But we have seen a slow down in processing times for both temporary and permanent residence applications.
We had hoped that the DOHA would look to finalise permanent residence applications for onshore applicants quickly. We are seeing some cases finalised but not as quickly as we would like.
Lodging subclass 186 applications for PR is still a good option when your 457 or 482 visa holder’s visa is going to expire. By lodging, they will move onto a bridging visa which allows them to remain in Australia and work for their employer whilst the PR application is being processed. This avoids having to lodge a new 482 visa and its associated costs.
We have also started to see more requests from the DOHA coming through asking sponsors to address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their business. This can mean more detailed information being required about any redundancies or stand downs that have occurred.
457 & 482 visa holders can be stood down without breaching their visa conditions or the sponsor breaching their obligations, but they are not entitled to Jobkeeper as a result of being temporary residents. This is something that needs to be considered and addressed when establishing the genuine position.
Another topic where we have seen more information requested is to do with the Labour Market Testing or advertising. The DOHA is requesting more detailed information about each person who applied for the job and specifically why they weren’t suitable rather than generally why all the applicants weren’t suitable for the position.
Even for onshore applicants the slower processing times is frustrating for many employers. In fact, they know the sponsored employee is in Australia and ready to start working but cannot until either the 482 nomination or the 482 nomination and visa are finalised.
This is an important part to factor into your planning. For visa applicants themselves, it is also important to factor in the time frame they can wait for a visa to be finalised without being able to work.
We have some examples of visa applicants who arrived in Australia in January or February 2020 and submitted 482 visa applications onshore. Back then these applications were taking approximately. 4 weeks. That has now changed and some of these people are still waiting on their 482 visa applications to be finalised.
This is placing a lot of pressure on families in Australia who are not working and on employers who really need that person to start work. These are unfortunate realities of where we are now, but we are hopeful of this situation improving soon.
Applicants outside of Australia
For applicants who are offshore the situation is different.
As mentioned above, there are some sponsors or employers who are deciding to go ahead with applications regardless, in order to get them in the queue to be ready for when the travel bans will be relaxed.
In this situation, it is important to keep in mind that visa processing time cannot be guaranteed and such options should only be pursued if you have all the facts and are prepared to wait.
The Australian government is being very strict on travel bans no matter the business needs. That being said, this can’t and won’t go on forever as Australian businesses need the best skills they can get from the global market and this is even more critical in these tougher times.
What is the outlook for employer sponsored visas once Australia starts opening up?
This is going to be a real balancing act between public health concerns, the needs of the Australian economy and the desire for businesses to bounce back and take advantage of opportunities.
I have been thinking a lot about what “opening up” is going to look like. Will this mean only certain passport holders will be allowed entry to Australia based on how their country is handling the pandemic? Or will the visa you hold be the key to your ability to travel to Australia?
Will this mean that student visa holders can travel? That employer sponsored visa holders or business and investor visa holders can travel? Will the benefit to Australia from that type of visa holder being here outweigh other concerns?
I could go on, as the reality is that there are currently many questions that we don’t have the answers to. However every day gives us a little bit more insight into the future to help us make more informed decisions.
A key issue we know is being discussed with the Government at the moment is about who will pay for any ongoing quarantine? Will it be universities for students? Will it be the students? Will employers pay? Will individuals have to pay or will the government continue to cover the cost? This appears to be a critical factor in deciding how Australia will open up.
The Australian government is under a lot of pressure from a number of industries to work out a plan on how travel bans can be relaxed. This ranges from travel, hospitality & tourism to international students. The housing and construction industries are concerned by having less skilled migrants as well. It’ll be interesting to see how this balancing act will play out.
One thing we know for sure is that once Australia’s domestic economy and state borders open up completely, business confidence will improve.
This is an important factor as to who is hiring. Hospitality businesses struggled to find good staff before the pandemic and this reality is not about to stop in such a context. Many IT and engineering skills are in short supply in Australia. This hasn’t changed and as conditions improve, demand will increase again.
In my opinion, the biggest factor at the moment for businesses and individuals to grapple with is the travel ban. If you are lucky enough to either find the job you want or the person you want to employ and they are in Australia already, then you can proceed as normal. Albeit just a bit slower than we were used to.
But if the visa applicant is overseas then, expect to have a longer wait and an uncertain one as to when they will be able to arrive. This is counter intuitive to helping the economy recover from the shock it has had in 2020, but that is what we are facing.
Worth keeping in mind that if you are overseas and have a job offer in Australia, and your partner is an Australian citizen or permanent resident, you have more options.
Partners are exempt from the travel ban and so can travel to Australia on either a partner visa or a visitor visa after applying for an exemption and then entering quarantine for 14 days. This is why it is important to look at all options to find the best solution for you.
Some figures to help put the above in perspectives.
Based on data from the Australian government, in a “normal” financial year, Australia’s migration program brings in approximately 160,000 people a year.
Taking the current situation into account, in the financial year that just started (July 2020 – June 2021), the government is anticipating the intake to be approximately 36,000 which represents a downfall of over 75%. It’s worth remembering though that temporary residents come in addition to this.
With that in mind, businesses need to be prepared and ready for what is still to come. That being said, I do think we will see improvements in condition and visas granted over time. Businesses need that to happen.
The interest level from international businesses to expand into Australia is still there. The demand from skilled workers to come to Australia is still there.
If anything, Australia is looking like an even more attractive destination in how it has handled the pandemic. It is about building a bridge from now until the time when movement of people will be quicker and easier again.
Skills shortages in Australia and how will the immigration program adapt to address these?
The skills shortages that Australian businesses were experiencing in February 2020 still exist. Australia’s immigration program has to play a part in filling them.
The re-skilling or training of Australians for many occupations will take years. Businesses can’t wait that long and so sponsoring skilled workers from overseas has to be an important part of the solution along with the training and re-skilling of Australians for new careers.
In all cases, I think an Australian employer will be most likely to take the right Australian candidate for a position over sponsoring someone as it is easier, quicker and cheaper.
Nonetheless, as we all know, in many cases there isn’t a suitably qualified Australian available which makes it compelling for an employer to consider and hire overseas candidates. This does have a positive impact on Australia as skills from around the world are brought here to benefit Australia.
Whilst unemployment is higher in Australia, we do think the government may look closely at the skilled occupations lists and who they want to attract to Australia.
They may also look at their visa processing times to gradually increase the arrival of sponsored visa holders as the economy improves. We haven’t heard anything definite about either of these but they don’t seem unreasonable considerations for the government to make.
We also think that the government will use this situation to encourage more skilled people to move to regional Australia. It will be interesting to see if this is successful and what if any incentives are offered.
We know all types of medical staff, engineering and tradespeople as well as certain IT skills are still required in Australia. We also know the government is very keen to attract people under the Global Talent Visa Program. We know many hospitality businesses cannot find the people and skills they need locally.
Innovation is still on the government’s agenda and this will also require looking globally for the right skills.
My feeling is that Australia’s immigration program – both temporary and permanent – has always played an important role in Australia’s economy and Australia’s sustained growth and this will continue.
We have tough times at present, but they will not last and we are working as hard as we can for our clients to find solutions for them where we can.
Are you currently needing help with a visa application for an employee? Are you looking to hire foreign talent when travel bans ease? Getting accurate and realistic advice during times of uncertainty such as these is crucial to your business’ success.