Australia will overhaul its visa programme and relax immigration restrictions on skilled workers while maintaining strong safeguards against its abuse, as part of the government’s competitiveness and innovation agenda.

The changes to the scheme are aimed at making the 457 visa process more flexible for businesses, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.

A temporary work visa, the 457 visa allows skilled workers to come to Australia for an approved business for up to four years.

The planned changes include, streamlining the process of sponsorship, nomination and visa for low-risk applicants, while flexible English-language testing and skill requirements for 457 applicants.

For the start-up businesses, it would mean increasing the sponsorship approval period from 12 to 18 months, so that they get more time to make their businesses sustainable.

Safeguards would be kept in place, Abott said, to prevent exploitation and protect local workers.

“The 457 programme must be a means of filling the genuine skills gaps in the local labour market while not placing unnecessary administrative burdens on business,” said an official release from the PM’s office yesterday.

“An effectively managed skilled migration programme ensures foreign workers supplement rather than substitute Australian workers,” it added.

The Government would ensure that foreign workers receive at least the same market rates that are paid to an Australian doing the same job in the same workplace.

The Government also announced expanding and improving the Significant Investor Visa (SIV) programme.

At present, SIVs are available for applicants having an eligible investment of 5 million Australian dollars, for a minimum of four years.

The reform programme would encourage more high net worth individuals to make Australia home and to leverage and better direct additional foreign investment, while maintaining safeguards to ensure the migration programme is not misused.

Meanwhile, the Government’s planned changes were today criticised by the construction workers union, saying workers’ rights would be undermined.

While businesses often condemned the 457 visa scheme as too rigid, workers fear businesses seeking cheap foreign labour might exploit the system to their benefit.

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