Rail giant Aurizon has been granted exemptions to the 457 program allowing the company to bring in foreign train drivers and grant them permanent residency in deals struck with the government behind closed doors.
Rail giant Aurizon has been granted the power to bring in foreign train drivers and offer them permanent residency despite the occupation not being eligible for a 457 visa – and a union claim that the jobs could be filled locally.
The government quietly released a list of businesses with “labour agreements” on its website on Monday night. The list provides the first insight into the controversial program following years of calls for transparency by legal experts, a Senate committee and the Labor Party.
On the list is Australia Western Railroad (AWR), a Western Australia-based subsidiary of Aurizon.
A labour agreement can be made between the government and a business when there is a demonstrated need that cannot be met in the Australian labour market and standard migration arrangements are not appropriate. Businesses are required to consult with unions before the government decides whether to approve an agreement.
Bob Nanva, National Secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) said there is "simply no need" for rail companies to use foreign train drivers in the current environment.
"The use of 457 visas is meant to be restricted to areas where there is a skills shortage, and gap in the domestic labour market. But this example shows that the system is a sham, and employers are being given too much latitude," he said.
"We have a highly skilled workforce here in Australia, and Australian train drivers should be getting the opportunity to fill these positions first."
Aurizon is cutting more than 300 positions, including train drivers, in Queensland this year. Their labour agreements allowed them to initially bring in foreign train drivers, and now offer them permanent residency that would not otherwise be available.
Aurizon declined an invitation to say how many drivers would receive permanent residency. A spokesperson said only that it was a "restricted group".
Between 2013 and 2016, the number of labour agreements that the government signed annually doubled, according to information released in July as part of Senate Estimates. More than 100 were approved in the 11 months to the end of May.
Maze of agreements
According to the recently published list, a labour agreement between the government and AWR came into force in June 2016. The RTBU claims it was not notified of this proposal.
A spokesperson for Aurizon said the agreement refers to "arrangements that were put in place with a restricted group of existing train drivers on 457 visas to convert to permanent residency".
The company previously had a labour agreement that commenced in 2012, signed during the Gillard Government when Bill Shorten was Minister for Workplace Relations. This earlier agreement allowed AWR to bring in 50 foreign train drivers in the first year and more in subsequent years. Most were from the UK or South Africa.
The agreement is only publicly known due to freedom of information disclosures from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Mr Shorten has been contacted for comment.