Visa reforms – a boost to regional Australia

Neil Arora

Migration Law

On Saturday (16 November 2019) two new Australian visa programs came into effect.  These visa programs, subclasses 494 and 491, are intended to stimulate and support regional Australia by making it easier to migrate to Designated Regional Areas of Australia.

Perhaps the most important reform with these programs is the widening of the definition of ‘Designated Regional Area’.  In effect, all of Australia outside of the major cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are now regional for the purposes of these two visa programs.  This includes major metropolitan centres such as Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Newcastle/Lake Macquarie and Wollongong/Illawarra.  This means that generous concessions are now available for employers in these cities and regions wishing to hire from overseas, and individual skilled workers looking to migrate to these parts of Australia.

Other notable features of these programs include:

  • five year temporary visa with a direct pathway to permanent residency after three years;
  • increased visa quota for these Designated Regional Areas (from 23,000 to 25,000 places per annum);
  • priority processing (one and three months); and
  • full access to Medicare.

These visa programs do appear to represent a step forward for prioritising regional Australia’s needs and broadening the scope of the Employer Sponsored and Skilled Visa programs.

Below are some key points for employers with a workforce based in a Designated Regional Area, and individuals considering their Australian migration options.

Employer sponsored regional visa

The Subclass 494 Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional (Provisional) visa application process is not dissimilar to the existing subclass 482 Temporary Skills Shortage (TSS) visa process.  There are three stages:

1. Sponsorship approval (a TSS standard business sponsorship will suffice for the subclass 494 program);

2. Nomination of the position, including market salary approval by the local Regional Certifying Body and Labour Market Testing; and

3. Visa application.

Of note is the much expanded occupation list.  650 occupations are available for employers, a significant expansion beyond what’s available in the major cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Other relevant requirements applicable to the visa applicant are:

  • a skills assessment is required, with very limited exceptions;
  • maximum age of 45;‘Competent English’; and
  • at least 3 years full-time experience in the same or related field.

Unlike the TSS program which limits visa grant periods to either two or four years depending on the occupation, under the subclass 494 visa program the visa period for all occupations is five years.

There is also scope under this new visa program for businesses to negotiate a labour agreement with the Department of Home Affairs in circumstances where the standard subclass 494 pathway does not apply to the business (i.e. due to particular occupation or industry requirements), enabling the employer to sponsor overseas workers.

Skilled work regional visa

Apart from the option of being sponsored by an employer based in a Designated Regional Area, individuals with at least 65 points may consider the Subclass 491 Skilled Work Regional (Provisional) visa.  This visa replaces the now repealed subclass 489 Skilled Work Regional (Provisional) visa.

Of note is the expanded sponsorship/nomination options for this visa.  Whereas under the previous skilled work regional visa program, visa applicants could only be nominated by a state or territory, under the new program applicants may be sponsored by an ‘Eligible Relative’ living in a Designated Regional Area.  The definition of Eligible Relative includes a first cousin, aunt, uncle or grandparent.  This is a substantial and important change.

The minimum points requirement for this skilled visa is 65 points.  Importantly, substantial additional points are on offer for this visa:

  • being nominated by a state or territory or sponsored by an Eligible Relative (15 points);
  • a skilled spouse or de facto partner (10 points);occupation coming within certain STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) (10 points);
  • a spouse or de facto partner with ‘Competent English’ (5 points); and
  • for applicants without a spouse or de facto partner (10 points).

These additions give individuals a much greater point leverage, which together with the higher per annum quota means much shorter wait times for many skilled visa applicants.

The occupation list for this visa contains 504 occupations.

Other relevant requirements applicable to the visa applicant are:

  • a skills assessment is required, with very limited exceptions;
  • maximum age of 45; and
  • ‘Competent English’.

While some states and territories are yet to release their nomination criteria, it is expected that criteria will remain similar to the now repealed subclass 489 visa.  For example, Victoria (uniquely) has indicated that it will require applicants to have a current offer of employment and meet specified financial resource requirements.

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