Arguably, Temporary Skill Visa holders in Australia at the time the COVID -19 pandemic struck have felt the impact more so than any other group of people within the Immigration diaspora.
According to government statistics, at the time the pandemic first hit, there were over 2 million people in Australia on a temporary visa of one type or another, of which about 140,000 were Temporary Skill Visa holders on either two or four year work visas. As business activity contracted, many of these individuals were either stood down, put on amended contracts with reduced benefits, or worse, terminated.
The government has made it clear that its policy is that temporary visa holders who are unable to support themselves are strongly encouraged to return home; however in many cases this is not possible due in some instances to the fear of returning to countries with higher rates of infection, or difficulties associated with travel generally.
Most temporary visa holders who are out of work have no ‘safety net’ to fall back on in the form of Job keeper or Job seeker payments if they lose their job.
The government responded to the problem by making changes to visa arrangements. However, these are very broad-based, and in reality would have little or no significant benefit to affected workers. For example, the government has agreed to allow most temporary visa holders with work rights to access their Australian superannuation to help support themselves during the crisis. While this is a positive step, the maximum permitted withdrawal is $10,000 - which represents limited financial relief at best.
Other changes which have been announced include that those persons who have been stood down, but not laid off, will be able to work reduced hours without being in breach of their visa condition. Also, if someone who is on a four-year work visa is laid off and returns to their home country and is re-employed after the pandemic, the time already spent in Australia will count towards their permanent residence skilled work experience requirements.
If a visa holder has no option but to return home, employers need to be aware of the fact that under the terms of their Sponsorship Agreement with the government they have an obligation to pay travel costs of the sponsored person (and family members) to the country that the person holds a passport for, and will travel to. This request must be made in writing to the employer; failure by the employer to comply could result in a finding that there has been a breach of the Sponsorship Agreement, with the possibility of significant penalties being levied. The message is that in these difficult times employers and employees should try and work together constructively to reach a solution which is fair and equitable for all concerned.