Gillard accused of 'desperate vote-mongering'
"We will not allow Australian workers to be denied the opportunity to fill Australian jobs": Julia Gillard. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Australian technology industry figureheads have lashed out at Prime Minister Julia Gillard for "desperate vote mongering" over "outrageous" comments she made accusing IT firms of abusing the skilled migration scheme.
The scheme, known as 457 visas, was designed to allow overseas workers to come to Australia to fill skills shortages.
There wouldn't be an IT industry in Australia if it wasn't for the fact that we could draw from overseas labour.Matt Barrie
Ms Gillard says the scheme is "riddled with rorts" while a parliamentary committee has recommended tougher rules on companies looking to employ foreign workers.
Mike Cannon-Brookes, Atlassian. Photo: Natalie Boog.
In a speech on Thursday morning at an Australian Council of Trade Unions event, the Prime Minister accused IT firms of rorting the scheme at the expense of Australian workers.
"Fact: there is clear evidence that in some growing sectors, importing workers on 457 visas is a substitute for spreading important economic opportunity to Australian working people," she said.
The IT industry is the largest sector for temporary overseas workers outside resource states Western Australia and Queensland. She said one in 20 temporary overseas workers in Australia was doing IT work in NSW alone.
Matt Barrie, Freelancer.com. Photo: Patrick Jones
"It is just not acceptable that information technology jobs, the quintessential jobs of the future, the very opportunities being created by the digital economy, precisely where the big picture is for our kids, should be such a big area of imported skills," Ms Gillard said.
"This is work for which we can and should train young Australians."
Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor has previously criticised the IT industry over its 68 per cent increase in 457 visas "while vacancies for local IT workers are decreasing".
Sydney-based global enterprise software company Atlassian employs 320 of its 600 global staff in Australia and says 19 per cent are currently on a 457 visa.
An angry Atlassian co-founder Mike-Cannon-Brookes described Ms Gillard's comments as ridiculous and said his firm would love to hire more Australians but "we don't have the scale or scope of talent here".
He said Australia needed more world class computer science graduates and "Ms Gillard should spend time improving that today – because she didn't do it yesterday or the day before that."
Mr Cannon-Brookes said the company was bringing in some of the best talent in the world from companies such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google. "Who on earth do we want to immigrate to Australia more than these folks?" he said.
Mr Cannon-Brookes pointed to a tweet by Treasurer Wayne Swan lauding Australia's low 5.4 per cent unemployment rate, saying it was nonsensical to claim employment was at record highs while complaining about overseas workers taking jobs from Australians.
Temporary overseas workers often stay in Australia and contribute to the economy, he said, and pointed out that Ms Gillard's family migrated from Wales in 1966.
"What if Ms Gillard had never been allowed in?" Mr Cannon-Brookes said.
Matt Barrie, CEO of Freelancer.com, who has been campaigning for better IT education in Australia for some time, described the Prime Minister's comments as "absolutely outrageous" and "desperate vote-mongering".
"There wouldn't be an IT industry in Australia if it wasn't for the fact that we could draw from overseas labour," he said, adding that Freelancer was always looking for software engineers but received only one local applicant a day on average.
There simply were not enough high quality engineers to power the technology industry, he said: "By contrast I put up a job for an office manager and my inbox is spammed.
"The bigger problem is the government has under-funded and ignored the technology industry and education in particular," he said.
"She's desperately trying to get votes from the unions, she's been parading around western Sydney ... it shows absolutely complete disconnection with her and the practical realities of the industry today."
Rick Baker, co-founder of the new $30 million Australian venture capital fund Blackbird Ventures, said overseas workers were a necessity for technology firms. "Let's hope the government doesn't have a knee-jerk reaction to this issue that creates negative side effects for our burgeoning tech start-up sector," he said.
In the IT industry, 5800 overseas workers were brought in over the past seven months, while there were 4500 IT graduates in 2011.
The Coalition says the 457 visa program is a core part of the migration system and Labor is playing to xenophobia in the community in order to attract votes.
Ms Gillard said she offered no apology for putting the opportunities of Australian working people first, "wherever they are born".
"We will not allow Australian workers to be denied the opportunity to fill Australian jobs," she said.
NBN Co, builder of the National Broadband Network, said less than 2 per cent of its employees were on 457 visas and about half of those were already in Australia working for other companies when they joined NBN Co.