THE legal status of about 135,000 decisions made by a body set up by the Howard government to vet the qualifications and experience of foreign workers is under a cloud after a series of bureaucratic and ministerial gaffes.
Both Joe Hockey and Julia Gillard, in their respective roles as employment and workplace ministers, failed to ratify Trades Recognition Australia - a body set up in 2007 - as a relevant authority under the Migration Act to ensure foreign workers met Australian standards before being approved for employment.
The embarrassing oversight came to light in March when lawyers for Indian national Gurinder Singh successfully overturned a decision by the Migration Review Tribunal to refuse him a visa on the grounds that he had provided false information about his work experience.
Lawyers for Mr Singh argued that although he provided misleading information to Trades Recognition Australia (TRA), it was not relevant because the agency had not been confirmed in writing by the minister as the relevant authority, a requirement contained in the enabling legislation.
A spokesman for the Minister for Tertiary Education and Skills, Senator Chris Evans, this week confirmed the blunder in a two-line statement to The Saturday Age, adding that steps had been taken to rectify the situation.
Sources in the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations told The Saturday Age this week it was a ''monumental stuff-up'' with implications for 135,000 skilled assessments made between 2007 and 2011. Figures released by the department show the TRA approved 99,433 skills assessments and rejected 35,908.
''It seems the paperwork just sat in the ministers' in-tray for years and they never got to it,'' was how another government source described the blunder.
Immigration experts last night said they believed the blunder would have profound implications for thousands of visa applications. But they said until each case was examined in detail it would be impossible to calculate precisely how many applicants would be adversely affected.
An Immigration Department spokesman said only 12,000 people under the general skilled migration program would be affected. ''We don't believe the number will be anywhere near 135,000 because not all decisions relate directly to the TRA.’’
Although the anomaly had been fixed in October last year, the spokesman said a review of the caseload affected had been ordered. No appeal was planned.
The Howard government set up TRA in 2007, but it was not properly empowered as the relevant assessing authority until 2011 by the Gillard government.
Joe Hockey, now the opposition treasury spokesman, said he had no recollection of the TRA or the legislative requirement. ‘‘It was an election year and Joe has no memory of it,’’ a spokesman said.
The oversight leaves a question mark over the legal status of thousands of workers employed on major resources projects as well as in the construction industry. In 2010 and 2011 about 50,000 457-category visas were granted. Last year 11,290 Australian and overseas employers were approved to sponsor 457 visas.
Lawyers for Mr Singh argued before the Federal Magistrates Court that the TRA had not been approved as the relevant assessing authority for his occupation as a cook and therefore the issue should not have been decided by the Migration Tribunal. They argued that the TRA had not been empowered by the education or employment minister.
In the past, the TRA has come under criticism from applicants wishing to obtain trade recognition so they can lodge applications. Applicants also complained to the Ombudsman that it was not clear why they had received adverse decisions.