Key players in the Australian tech start-up scene have lashed out at Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s suggestion the 457 visa program is being abused by the IT industry.
Last month, the federal government announced it would tighten requirements around 457 visas to ensure it addresses genuine skills shortages and to prevent local workers from missing out on jobs.
The government plans to overhaul 457 visa restrictions to make sponsors declare they will commit to employing Australian citizens, restrict the number of workers a business can sponsor, and tighten the definitions around eligible positions for the visa.
Speaking at an Australian Council of Trade Unions summit yesterday, Gillard took aim at the IT industry; the sector that employs the most overseas workers.
According to Gillard, one in 20 temporary overseas workers in Australia is employed in an IT role in NSW alone.
Gillard said the 457 program is being abused as “a substitute for spreading important economic opportunity to Australian working people”.
“It is just not acceptable that information technology jobs… should be such a big area of imported skills,” she said.
Gillard’s criticisms have been met with anger by key players in the Australian tech industry, with Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes taking to Twitter to vent his frustration.
“Just outraged at the insanity of @JuliaGillard complaining about 457s in IT being bad for the economy,” Cannon-Brookes tweeted.
“How can you say IT is the future of the country, then complain when we import skilled labour to help us.
“The largest IT project in the country – the NBN – is a Labor initiative. Do they not use 457s? Surely they’re the largest consumer.”
Mick Liubinskas, co-founder of online venture builder Pollenizer, agrees with Cannon-Brookes’ comments.
“I think there are a lot of people in the tech industry working very, very hard… To think we are intentionally hiring overseas people [over Australians] – it’s just crazy,” he told StartupSmart.
“We are trying to build successful, fast-growing businesses… and we’re being hassled for such a small thing.
“The thing that hurts the most is the [real] reason why tech companies may have to hire [IT workers] from overseas is because we don’t have them here in Australia.
“Who in their right mind would go through the rigmarole of hiring someone from overseas when you can hire an Australian?”
By championing the cause of Australian jobs, Liubinskas believes the government is trying to appeal to a certain section of society.
“It feels crazy. It feels like they’re taking a simple view to simply say, ‘Hire Australians’. It seems very cheap,” he says.
“It also seems [the government is] a long way away of having an understanding of what’s actually here and how it works. Disappointing.”
Entrepreneur Jonathan Barouch, founder of iPhone app Roamz, adds that Gillard’s comments distracted from the wider issue that Australia has a tech sector that is “starved of capital and government support” and an education system that is producing fewer and fewer skilled IT graduates.
Innes Willox, chief executive of Australian Industry Group, also weighed in on the debate, saying it has reached the “bottom of the barrel”.
“For the federal government to single out the information and communications technology industry for criticism as a growing user of 457 visas is baffling,” Willox said in a statement.
“Government data indicates that there is an acute IT skills shortage in Australia.
“The main reason for this is that the number of Australian students studying IT subjects has declined dramatically in the past decade at secondary and tertiary levels.
“The net skilled migration intake for ICT workers has been stable for the past five years, sitting at just more than 5,000 workers annually.
“This fills a gap that cannot be satisfied domestically because the skilled graduates do not exist.”
According to Willox, the “demonising” of 457 visa holders has ramifications for Australia’s image as a modern and open economy.
“We are working in a global marketplace and closing our doors too tightly on labour is another form of protectionism. That was part of our past but shouldn’t be part of our future,” he said.