Departmental Processing Status

As a consequence of changes to the department’s operating model, our industry has noticed a slowing down in the processing of all applications.  For the safety of Australians, most Departmental officers are now working remotely with strict protocols around document security thereby limiting their productivity, whilst other officers have been reallocated to undertake quarantine related activities.

At present, the Department has stated that visa applications will continue to be assessed but there are significant delays in processing times particularly for non-essential workers or when the applicant is outside of Australia.  The focus will be on prioritising infrastructure projects and workers, healthcare and medical workers, which means that other occupations will be pushed toward the back of the ‘queue’.

Reasons for delay include:

  • Reallocation of resources – Departmental officers are working on quarantine related activities. Some staff have been seconded to the Australian Border Force (ABF) to deal with COVID-19 matters (e.g. enforced isolation of returnees);
  • Travel restrictions;
  • Many processing officers working remotely;
  • Offshore processing centres are closed.

Whilst there is still no clear date on when the travel restrictions will be lifted, as this will most likely be a globally coordinated effort as the pandemic is slowly controlled in each country, it is possible that travel restrictions may be extended until 2021.  Although this has not been publicly announced, it does appear to be the position the Australia Government may take.

That said, the ABF Commissioner does have the authority to make exemptions for travel to Australia and the Government is now moving towards relaxing the restrictions as the country (and economy) returns to normalising life as we know it.  Hopefully this will mean that they will give concessions that may extend exemptions for travel to Australia to certain industry groups provided health tests have been cleared.

In addition to this, the department has indicated that certain industries may be subject to additional processing requirements as a response to growing unemployment which is expected to reach 10%.  For those involved with immigration a decade or so ago, the department mandated a ‘benefit to Australia’ test in response to the Global Financial Crisis.  That test required sponsors to demonstrate how the employment of overseas skilled workers would be of a tangible benefit to Australia.  We suspect a similar test will be introduced shortly on the basis of the underlying principles associated with the temporary work visa program.

The purpose and spirit of the temporary work program is the ability for local employers to access overseas talent to address skill shortages after presenting clear labour market data evidencing a talent drought.  We are likely to see the department revisit this in an attempt to validate the program.

Travel Restrictions

From 20 March 2020, only an Australian citizen, a permanent resident, an immediate family member of an Australian citizen or permanent resident or are a New Zealand citizen usually resident in Australia can travel to Australia.

From 25 March 2020, Australian citizens and Australian permanent residents are restricted from travelling overseas.

With the progress being made domestically to ‘flatten the curve’, the Australian government is now moving towards relaxing the restrictions as they move back to operational mode.  They may give some concessions that may extend exemptions to other industries.

The current exemptions for non-residents are as follows:

  • foreign nationals travelling at the invitation of the Australian Commonwealth Government for the purpose of assisting in the COVID-19 response or whose entry would be in the national interest
  • critical medical services, including air ambulance and delivery of supplies, that regularly arrive into Australia from international ports
  • people with critical skills (for example, medical specialists, engineers, marine pilots and crews) by exception
  • diplomats accredited to Australia and currently resident in Australia, and their immediate family
  • ​case-by-case exceptions for humanitarian or compassionate reasons.

Exemptions must be granted prior to travelling to Australia. The request for an exemption through Commissioner’s Discretion must be accompanied by:

  • passenger details: name, DOB, visa type and number, passport number, Australian residential address, Australian telephone number)
  • case information: why this case should be considered for Commissioner discretion/exemption
  • supporting statement: the request should be accompanied by a statement and evidence of how the individual meets one of the grounds for an exemption or excise of the Commissioner’s discretion listed above.

It is important that all travellers provide evidence that they meet one of the exemptions above before travelling.

Strategies and Recommendations

For now, it is imperative for clients to understand the likelihood that offshore resourcing for onshore projects will most likely need to be pushed back until the travel restrictions are eased or a plan is in place to reopen borders.

For essential staff, it may be appropriate to reconfigure the strategy to enable an application for permanent residence in the first instance.  The current travel restriction does not apply to Australian permanent residents and this may be an option for key staff in senior roles.

In addition, we anticipate that the Skilled Occupation List will significantly change post-COVID-19.  This may mean that certain occupations may be removed or added to the list.  With this in mind, and without knowing the precise changes, it may be appropriate for our clients to continue their current immigration strategies to preserve their current rights under law and to avoid any ramifications of potential changes.

Importantly, we would recommend employers retain evidence of all efforts to recruit locally including generating any empirical data around skill shortages.  Trends in recruitment practices as well as clear evidence of a lack of skills from the domestic labour market (whether technical or soft skills) would be particularly useful in demonstrating a genuine need to use the system.

If you are interested to learn more about anything appearing in this alert, feel free to reach out to one of our consultants or contact us.