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AUSTRALIA: The Australian government has announced four immigration-related initiatives

The Australian government has announced four immigration-related initiatives.

On May 10, 2011, the Australian government announced four main immigration-related initiatives as part of Budget FY 2011–12. The changes are in response to the tightening labor market in Australia with unemployment forecasted to fall to 4.75% in 2011-2012.

The demand-driven sponsored employee 457 visa program will receive additional staff and a new processing site in Brisbane. Together, these initiatives should see processing times halve to 2 weeks for decision-ready applications.

In response to the need for labor in regional Australia, the government has announced the introduction of Regional Migration Agreements (RMAs). These will bring together employers, local and state/territory governments, and unions to cooperate on addressing local labor needs.  RMAs will be custom-designed, geographically based migration arrangements that set out the occupations and numbers of overseas workers needed in the area. Concessional access to semi-skilled overseas workers will be negotiated where there is a demonstrable and critical need.

As with the current arrangements for Labour Agreements, each RMA will be negotiated between the government and representatives of the local area. Individual local employers will then be able to directly sponsor workers under the terms of the umbrella RMA. The agreements will allow employers to use overseas workers where local labor cannot be sourced.  By utilizing RMAs, regional employers will be able to gain streamlined access to temporary and permanent overseas workers if they can demonstrate a genuine need while at the same time ensuring that training initiatives for Australians are in place.

It is expected that negotiations for individual RMAs will commence in 2012.

In addition, the government has confirmed new Enterprise Migration Agreements (EMAs) that will allow major resource projects to gain access to overseas labor for genuine skills vacancies that cannot be filled from the Australian labor market.  Forecasted to streamline negotiation arrangements for access to overseas workers and deliver faster visa processing times, EMAs will be custom-designed, project-wide migration arrangements uniquely suited to the resources sector, ensuring that skills shortages do not create constraints on major projects and jeopardize Australian jobs. This recognizes the need for labor to support the A$380 billion of investments in the pipeline for resources projects.

To be approved for an EMA, a projects must develop a comprehensive training plan, demonstrating how the project will invest in the up-skilling of Australians to meet future skills needs in the resources sector by setting measurable targets that develop skills in occupations where there are known or anticipated shortages. EMAs will be available to projects with a capital expenditure of A$2 billion or more and a peak workforce of 1,500 workers. The announcement follows the government's acceptance in March of all 31 recommendations of the National Resources Sector Employment Taskforce - which included the introduction of EMAs - to help address the need for more than 77,000 skilled workers on major resources projects by 2015.

Negotiated by the government with the project owner and acting as an umbrella arrangement for the project, an EMA will set the terms by which overseas workers will be engaged on the project, as well as outlining training commitments that must be met by the project. The terms set out in each EMA will include the occupations, qualifications, English language skills, wages, and conditions of the foreign workers on the project.  Subcontracting employers, with the endorsement of the EMA holder, will be able to sign onto Labour Agreements under the terms of the EMA, ensuring that responsibility for sponsorship obligations rests with the direct employer of the overseas worker.

Existing migration arrangements will continue to be available to these projects as well as to resource projects that do not meet these thresholds, including expedited 5-day processing for decision-ready 457 visa applications.

EMAs will take a project-wide approach to meeting skill needs. Rather than each subcontractor having to negotiate their own Labour Agreement, the bulk of negotiation will occur with the project owner. This means that project owners can plan their workforce needs from the outset, and there will be a straightforward process for subcontractors to sign up for an individual Labour Agreement.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship has indicated that it plans to negotiate the agreements within 3 months of the date a project owner submits a complete request for an EMA.  One of the advantages of an EMA is that occupations not currently eligible for a sponsored employee 457 visa (typically semi-skilled occupations) can be sponsored to a capped level, provided the project can justify a genuine need that cannot be met by the Australian labor market.

And finally, the government has indicated its intention to implement a new Skilled Migrant Selection Model in July 2012 based on an Expression of Interest (EOI) and invitation to apply for those applicants applying under the points-tested visa pathways.  Key features of the Model are settled, although the proposal is still in an early stage of development with further details to be released.

The new Model will introduce a two-stage process: first, prospective applicants submit claims for skilled migration through an online EOI and subsequently may be invited to make a visa application. This is a significant change from the current situation because applicants for independent or state/territory-sponsored migration will be required to receive an invitation in order to file a visa application. Once applicants are invited, the Model will ensure a match between the number of applicants and the number of available program places, resulting in streamlined processing times.

A key benefit of the Model is the ability to address regional skill shortages because the Model allows prospective migrants to signal their willingness to live and work in regional Australia.  The Model will connect state/territory governments and employers with potential skilled workers through a central database of prospective skilled migrants.

This will help state/territory governments to maximize the benefits to be derived from their state/territory Migration Plans.  Submitting an EOI allows employers to view applicants' details and contact prospective applicants to discuss sponsorship opportunities. It also allows prospective migrants who are sponsored on a temporary basis to be invited to apply for either independent migration or state/territory-sponsored migration, if eligible.

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