Qantas has struck an agreement with the Turnbull government to get around new restrictions on skilled visa workers and recruit overseas pilots for long-term stays.
The labour agreement granted last month allows the airline’s regional arm, QantasLink, to bring 76 pilots and instructors into the country for up to four years, avoiding new two-year restrictions that block permanent residency.
Qantas is the most high-profile company to be granted a labour agreement this year, in what is an emerging tool for employers to address the government’s crackdown on the skilled visa system.
The airline, which has 3500 pilots in total, is going through one of the biggest pilot training programs in its history, with plans to train 100 pilots a year in a new centre to open in 2019.
The pending introduction of 14 Dreamliners has meant Qantas needs to train pilots to move up the ranks, to replace those it has promoted to fly the new aircraft.
However, the airline has struggled to recruit enough instructors and believes two-year visa restrictions on overseas pilots, which came into full effect in March, are globally uncompetitive.
The labour agreement will allow it to bring in overseas pilot instructors, as well as pilots for low-level propeller aircraft, with the intake to be renegotiated after the first year.
While their visa stay will be limited to four years, the workers will be cleared for a pathway to permanent residency after that period.
A Qantas spokesperson said: “Our focus has always been to recruit Australian-based pilots and that hasn’t changed.
“This agreement allows us to temporarily bring in a limited number of simulator instructors and experienced pilots from overseas to support one of the biggest training programs we have done in our history.”
Labour agreements date back to 1989, but have attracted renewed interest after the Turnbull government restricted permanent residency pathways for skilled visa workers, scrapped a range of eligible occupations and introduced dozens of business prerequisites.
Other companies granted labour agreements this year include Inpex Australia, which runs the Ichthys LNG project, beef exporter Teys Australia and Sydney harbour fine-dining restaurant Aqua Dining.
Ernst & Young’s global immigration head, Wayne Parcell, said his firm has seen an increase in inquiries from employers about labour agreements, particularly for airline services and the regional health sector.
“They really provide the only pathway to loosening the criteria that people have to sponsor people who are not on one of those designated lists or are in occupations that don’t quite fit,” he said.
‘No easy pathway’
Department of Immigration and Border Protection secretary Mike Pezzullo told a Senate estimates hearing in May that labour agreements were a “better targeted measure” to address company-specific requirements for skilled workers.
“There is no reason for anyone to be devastated about anything,” he said in response to a backlash to the visa changes. “They can engage with us on a labour agreement, they can engage with us on any number of alternative pathways.”
However, Mr Parcell said his understanding was the department did not see such agreements as its “favoured option”, as it viewed them as a “regulation breaker”.
Information requirements for the agreements were also “incredibly intensive”, with documents needing to demonstrate economic benefit, labour market testing, skill and salary levels.
“It’s not an easy pathway by any means,” he said. “You won’t be looking at it for low-paid, low-skilled occupations because of the high level of sensitivity [surrounding such agreements].”
First Appeared On Australian Financial Review