After a month-long campaign to find out from the Immigration Department the source of temporary IT workers coming into Australia Computerworld has finally obtained the figures for the countries of origin.
Department of Immigration Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) records show that IT workers from India currently account for almost half of all temporary, skilled ICT visas issued into Australia - more than double the number of visas issued to the next country down the list, the UK for 2004/5.
IT workers from India account for 1415 out of a total of 3379 subclass 457 visa grants (temporary skilled migration) compared to 681 Britons for the same category for this year. The Republic of Ireland comes third at 190 entrants, while the US - home of IBM, Microsoft and Oracle - only managed a contribution 176 for the same period.
The new numbers effectively discredit repeated claims by multinational software and IT services vendors operating in Australia they have not been exploiting the 457 visa scheme to undercut local wages and conditions by importing IT labour from low-wage destinations.
The 457 visa system was designed to allow companies to bring skilled workers to Australia to fill skills shortages and to allow enterprises investing in Australia to help establish their operations here. The 457 scheme is specifically not intended to allow companies to import discounted labour from overseas to gain an advantage over competitors in the local the marketplace.
The official figures obtained by Computerworld also reveal India has held top position as a source of temporary IT labour since 2001/2002. In that year India eclipsed the UK with 710 temporary IT visa holders over Her Majesty's 680.
In 2002/3 and 2003/4 ICT-based temporary visa allocations to Indian nationals into Australia increased to 1217 and 1540 respectively.
Unions and the Australian Computer Society have repeatedly warned a lack of transparency in the 457 system has left it open to abuse, claims which DIMIA has so far denied. Having ordered the release of the figures from DIMIA, the office of Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said it will reveal its position on whether the new numbers are cause for concern in due course.
Computerworld also understands from senior government sources that IT-based 457 visa numbers are to be reviewed as part of a wide-ranging clean-out of senior executive management at DIMIA following the release of the Palmer report into the department's wrongful detention and deportation of Australians.
A full transcript of the DIMIA 457 statistics is available at www.computerworld.com.au/457visas.
Figures raise more questions than answers
The ultimate release of the 457 visa figures also provides food for thought on just how DIMIA monitors the entry and passage of temporary workers into and through Australia.
By far the most bizarre group of temporary IT workers are some 168 souls 2004/5 literally lumped into the "unknown" category for their nation of origin. Similarly, in 2003/4 there were 84 listed "unknowns" - an exponential rise from 2002/3 when there were only four. The matter is being investigated by the department.
Another question is how or if the current batch of 457 numbers correlates to previous figures. In May 2005, DIMIA stated a total 10,252 subclass 457 visa grants have been issued to ICT workers from an unspecified time in 2002 until January 31, 2005. The current figures put 457 visa numbers for roughly the same period at 10,740 - a difference of 288.
However, by far the most pressing question about 457 visas is whether DIMIA will ultimately make public the names of which IT companies are using 457 workers and release the numbers which they are using. So far, numerous vendors are understood to have lobbied heavily against such a move, arguing it compromises both privacy and their ability to compete in the local marketplace.
Whether vendors can sustain such a line, or indeed their current recruitment practices, given the implications of the latest figures remains to be seen.
Broken 'spirit' leaves ACS unimpressed
President of the Australian Computer Society, Edward Mandla is predictably unimpressed by the latest DIMIA figures, saying they vindicate a long-held position by his organization that "the whole spirit of the 457 system is broken."
"The evidence in the numbers is of low salaries coming in to undercut local wages and conditions," Mandla said, adding "the saddest thing is that they will result in more local [IT] unemployment and that young people in Australia will not take up IT as a profession ... because all they see is their jobs being taken away from them".
Mandla said it was in the national interest that companies operating in Australia should be compelled to publicly disclose the number of 457 visas awarded to them to "ensure transparency of the system".
He refuted suggestions such measures would impinge on privacy or competitive advantage adding companies preferring to opt out of such scrutiny had the option of not using the 457 visa program.