Visa changes may cost Australia skilled workers

Tighter Australian labour migration rules could drive skilled workers to other developed nations, say experts.

Tighter Australian labour migration rules could drive skilled workers to other developed nations, say experts.

Countries such as the US and Germany have recently eased migration policies to replenish an ageing workforce and proponents of imported tech labour believe they could attract the talent otherwise bound for Australia if the political mood swings away from providing 457 visas to the IT industry.

Vivek Wadhwa, author and fellow at Stanford Law School, said Prime Minister Julia Gillard's potential revision of 457 visa policies would cause the Australian government to "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory - again".

"After being recognised worldwide as a destination for smart technologists, [Australia] is reversing course. This is just when its local tech scene is beginning to flourish and when it needs these people the most," said Mr Wadhwa, who extolled the importance of immigration in his book The Immigrant Exodus: Why America is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent.

Mr Wadhwa's family migrated from India to Australia in the '70s but later settled in the US, where he started his first technology business.

"This will no doubt be a loss for Australia," he said. "We are entering an era of exponential technology advances. In this era, skill and knowledge are the keys to being competitive. Australia risks falling behind and being left out."

Traditionally conservative US and German politicians have quelled xenophobic immigration forces to import the highly skilled workers.

Next month, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services will begin accepting applications for the H-1B visa, popular among tech companies to attract Indians and Chinese. The agency expects to fill its quota of 65,000 applications in the first five days. If applicants hold a master's degree or higher, their employers are exempt from the quota cap.

American senators are also debating whether to double the quota, as well as how to expand access to visas through laws such as the Startup Act 3.0 and the Innovation Immigration Act - known as the I-SQUARED.

In February, the OECD published Recruiting immigrant workers: Germany, a report that favourably reviewed a new streamlined visa application process, immigrant-friendly policies, and a "Make it in Germany" campaign.

"Processing times are fast in international comparison; the procedure is inexpensive; and refusal rates are low," the report said. "Recent provisions open up more of the skilled occupations for accelerated recruitment."

According to the report, Germany receives the fifth-largest number of highly-skilled immigrants in the world.

India, the world's largest IT skills exporter, satisfies 80 per cent of Germany's technology job requirements. In 2011, Germany rejected only 2 per cent of applications from Bangalore.

Jonathan Chaloff, one of the report's authors, said fewer opportunities in the US, Britain, Australia and Canada - typically the most desired destinations for Indian skilled workers - could drive labour migrants to Germany.

"It would make the other destinations more attractive," Mr Chaloff said. "Most skilled labour migration is demand driven: the job offer from employers determines the magnitude of flows to individual countries."

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