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19 Apr 2017

Nationalist sword cuts both ways - Australia mimics Trump and deals visa blow to Indians

Narendra Modi with Malcolm Turnbull during their visit to the Akshardham Temple in New Delhi on April 10. (PTI)
TT, New Delhi, April 18: Make in India, America First, Australians First.... The growing trend of nationalist postures abroad, similar to that pursued by the Narendra Modi government at home, is beginning to bite Indians. 
Australia today scrapped a visa scheme, called 457, for temporary skilled workers, the biggest beneficiaries of which were Indians.
The Australian foreign worker scheme, under which 95,000 foreigners are employed, will be replaced by two visas covering shortages of temporary skilled workers that will impose tougher English language tests, longer work experience requirements, and mandatory police checks.
The number of occupations eligible to be considered for the two-year and four-year visas will be cut by more than 200. Jobs no longer considered will include those of web developer, actor, pilot, butcher, flight attendant, futures trader, public relations manager and radio journalist.
However, no one now in Australia on a 457 visa will be affected by the new arrangements.
India had provided the largest number of workers with 457 visas in the year that ended last September, accounting for nearly a quarter of all successful applications.
"We are putting jobs first; we are putting Australians first," Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said. "We are an immigration nation but the fact remains that Australian workers must have priority for Australian jobs; so we are abolishing the 457 visa, the visa that brings temporary foreign workers into our country."
Turnbull should be a familiar figure in India, thanks to the very public bonding he has had with Prime Minister Narendra Modi eight days ago - on the steps of the Akshardham temple in the capital and on a Metro train, garlanded and lost in selfie nirvana.
But back in Turnbull's home in Sydney, realpolitik took over. He mimicked President Trump's "America first" stance to outflank Bill Shorten, Australia's Opposition Labour leader, who had promised to tighten up the visa scheme. Pauline Hanson, leader of the far-right One Nation Party, too claimed credit for the changes.
Joanna Howe, an associate professor of law at the University of Adelaide, said Australia was hewing to an argument similar to that of Trump.
"That rhetoric is very consistent with the rhetoric from Donald Trump around protecting American jobs and also from Theresa May's government in the United Kingdom post-Brexit, ensuring that UK workers get first access to jobs," she said.
The bad news came on a day many Indians were keeping a close watch on Trump, who was hours away from signing an executive order aimed at making it harder for technology companies to recruit low-wage workers from foreign countries and undercut Americans looking for jobs.
The changes Trump is seeking will take some time to carry out, officials said. The order will call for a 220-day review of waivers and exceptions made to decades-old "Buy American" rules.
The Indian foreign ministry said the government was examining the consequences of Turnbull's announcement. "The government is examining the consequences of the new policy in consultation with all stakeholders," a spokesperson said. "This is also a matter we will be looking at in the context of CECA negotiations."
The joint statement issued last Monday during Turnbull's state visit to India had said the "Prime Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to the conclusion of a commercially meaningful Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), which addresses the priorities of both sides".
Under the new regime, the list of occupations open to skilled labour from outside Australia has been condensed from 651 to 435. While 216 occupations have been removed, access to 59 other kinds of jobs has been restricted.
The new visa will be limited to a two-year stream and a second maximum four-year stream that will require a higher standard of English language. Those on the two-year visa will not be eligible for permanent resident (PR) status but can apply for a four-year sponsored visa if they fulfil the English proficiency criterion and get security clearance.
Businesses can offer these jobs to foreigners only after first opening employment opportunities to Australians or those who already have PR status.
On social media, some recalled last week's Modi-Turnbull camaraderie. "After the Akshardham boat ki savari (boat ride), @TurnbullMalcolm slaps; abolishes visa programme used largely by Indian workers," said one tweet.
Another said: "Australia abolishes 457 visa used by majority Indian workers. After PM Modi & Australian PM had selfie in India."
But Yadu Singh, a Bundelkhand native now based in Sydney, welcomed the move in a personal blog. "It is well-known that (the) 457 visa system was scammed by many employers and businesses. Many times, employers were not testing the market for the availability of suitably skilled local people. Even worse, many employers and businesses were taking money for sponsoring people on 457 visa.... Exploitation for some of these visa holders was not uncommon."
Dean McEvoy, chief executive of the technology industry group TechSydney, said he was worried about the abolition of the programme.
"Any plans to cut back on the tech industry's ability to bring in expertise from overseas before more Australians have been adequately trained in IT will only harm the industry and future of jobs in this country," McEvoy said.
The possibility that the visa might be scrapped had been raised in the Lok Sabha last month when YSR Congress MP Kothapalli Geetha asked whether the government was aware of such moves and what steps were being taken to protect Indian workers in Australia.
In his written reply, minister of state for external affairs V.K. Singh had said: "Australia is making some modifications to the 457 visa programme. These are general changes and not specific to India, although this will affect Indians as well.
"The changes in the programme relate to (the) number of days a person can stay in Australia after completion of the employment contract.... The issue of 457 visa programme has been taken up with the Australian government by the Government of India through its high commission in Australia."
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THE TIMES, LONDON, AND NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

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