The closure of Australia’s borders in March this year with virtually no prior notice, resulted in our island nation being cut off from the rest of the world with an almost brutal efficiency.
For many businesses the sudden border closure had a significant impact on their ability to access highly skilled labour, not readily available within the Australian labour market, but critical to their operations. Partly in recognition of this, a Priority Migration Skilled Occupation list was recently published on the Department of Home Affairs website. Occupations on this list will receive priority processing in respect of employer sponsored visa programs. However, as there are only 17 occupations listed, of which 12 are medical related, this announcement, whilst welcomed by some businesses, is of no use to the majority.
A visa subcategory designed exclusively for short term highly specialised business needs, and well utilised by businesses up until the advent of Covid 19, is the Subclass 400 Temporary Work (Short Stay Specialist) Visa. Designed primarily for stays of up to 3 months, it is possible to obtain a grant for up to 6 months if a strong business case is demonstrated. Providing the qualifying criteria can be demonstrated to exist, processing of applications has always been relatively straightforward and visas relatively quickly approved. As a result, they were very popular for businesses seeking quick access to persons with highly specialised skills, knowledge or experience. Historically, about a thousand of these visas were approved each week from 2014 onwards.
As mentioned earlier, the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation list only refers to 17 occupations, 12 of which are medical related. Not only does it provide very limited relief, but also importantly, it only applies to employer nomination and visa applications, and therefore does not offer any comfort to employers wishing to bring workers in for short periods of time on the subclass 400 visa.
The ongoing inability to address critical labour shortages is obviously becoming a major issue for many businesses in Australia. While the economy is in a downturn it is possible that this issue is somewhat repressed, however as things start to improve, these issues may prove to be stumbling block for a quick recovery unless quickly addressed.
As with nature, once the environment changes those businesses most likely to succeed will respond accordingly to meet those changes. For businesses that can no longer get ready access to the skills base they need, the obvious answer is a greater reliance on technology, and we are now seeing a move to increased reliance on remote working solutions where the key worker remains in their home country and provides the necessary skills online. An issue for future consideration by social scientists will be to what extent the Covid crisis will be seen to have accelerated the move to a situation where business needs are met largely by remote providers, with the need to quickly relocate to the source of the work either eliminated or drastically reduced to those situations where an actual physical presence is required – e.g. if a piece of equipment needs to be commissioned.
Not only does increased reliance on remote solutions make good economic sense in direct terms by dramatically reducing relocation and repatriation costs, it also mean that significant home office savings are likely to be achieved by eliminating the need to have people engaged in navigating their way around complex migration rules, travel restrictions and so on. The ramifications of this emerging trend for the global mobility industry generally are significant.