A leader in the engineering sector in Australia has joined unions in slamming proposals to water down requirements relating to Australia’s foreign worker visa program, saying new rules which would allow specialised staff to work in Australia for up to a year without a 457 visa would open the way for the system to be rorted.

Speaking on the ABC’s The World Today program, Engineers Australia Chief Executive Officer Steven Durkin said proposals for a new class of temporary entry visa which would allow companies to bring foreign workers into Australia for up to a year without workers in question having to pass requirements relating to skills or language and without employers having to first prove that the position in question cannot be filled using Australian workers could result in foreign workers swamping the market at a time when local engineers are facing increasingly uncertain times in the grip of a mining downturn.

“The potential for this to be rorted is through, you know, employers who might be able to bring in those short-term specialists, there’s either the fly-in, fly-out workers who might, you know, come in to provide some consultation service who might do inter-company transfers,” Durkin told the program. “What we are concerned about is that removing any of those safeguards that are currently in place could swamp the local market.”

Durkin said the need for labour market testing prior to brining in foreign workers in order to prove that positions could not be filled using local staff remained strong notwithstanding growing calls on the part of business greater simplification of foreign worker requirements.

“What we feel really strongly about is that we need labour market testing. We are very much of the view that these visas should be a privilege, not a right, we certainly feel that employers should have to prove that they can’t fill the jobs using local skills and a local skilled workforce.”

Durkin’s call echoes sentiments of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, whose Secretary Ged Kearney described the proposal as ‘extraordinary’ and said that it showed that ‘the people doing this review either don’t care or have not really had a careful look at the workplace situation right now’.

Under the proposed new changes – which have been outlined in a Department of Immigration and Border Protection paper as part of what the Abbott government claims is the biggest re-examination of skilled migration in 25 years – a new type of visa would allow companies to bring in foreign workers for up to a year without the worker having to meet strict language and skill requirements under the existing 457 regime or the employer having to meet requirements to conduct market testing prior to prove that no local labour was available to suitably and adequately perform the role in question.

The proposed changes would also see the existing 457 visa absorbed into a new ‘temporary skilled’ category and the creation of new ‘permanent independent’ and ‘permanent skilled’ categories – with the 457 regime retaining aforementioned skill, language and market testing requirements.

Despite the aforementioned concerns, business groups welcomed the proposed new rules, saying employers needed greater flexibility and that the compliance requirements with the existing 457 regime were too onerous in respect of short-term assignments and that timeframes on an existing category 400 visa allowing workers into the country for up to six weeks were insufficient to meet the requirements of many temporary roles.

“This is needed because regularly on major projects now, a company might need to say install a new piece of equipment in Australia from overseas and they want to bring in an operator or an installer to actually do the installation and there’s nobody in Australia who has used that particular piece of machinery before,” Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chief Executive Officer Kate Carnell told the ABC program. “So, bringing someone in for a short-term period, but longer than six weeks is really cost effective and also good for efficiency.”

Public submissions on the proposed new rules are open until the end of January.