The government is continuing its visa scheme for technology workers in startups and large companies following what it says was a successful 12 month trial. Known as the Global Talent – Employer Sponsored program (GTES), organisations can apply for five year visas for highly skilled foreign workers.

The program had been pitched partly as a way of boosting Australia’s tech startup scene and included a specific “startup stream” for visas as well as a startup advisory panel. However, according to government figures, in the first 13 months just five startups used the scheme which was much more popular with large companies.

The continuation of the program announced today has, however, been welcomed by the startup community which expects uptake to grow.

Under the scheme startups can import five highly skilled foreign workers per year while established businesses can bring in up to 20 through what the government says is a “streamlined” process.

However, each organisation’s agreement needs to be negotiated with government – a requirement designed to allow companies to import skills the government doesn’t know they need – and there are considerable fees, disproportionately applied to startups in some ways, according to critics.

The pilot program began in July last year partly in response to a tightening of the 457 program which critics said would make it difficult to import tech talent.

During that period only 18 organisations utilised the scheme even though the pilot was open ended in terms of visa numbers. Among them are large companies Rio Tinto, Atlasssian, Coles, and Canva. Only five startups were approved.

Today there are 23 organisations with visa agreements under the scheme, according to the government.

Slow start

Within the first seven months of the scheme no startups had been approved, according to FOI documents revealed by immigration lawyer Jordan Tew in February.

Tew argued the loose definitions of emerging technology positions meant there was overlap with existing visa programs, meaning companies could save themselves money and the bureaucratic hassle of negotiating agreements with the Department of Home Affairs.

“The point seems to be, why would any business want to take on an additional bureaucratic process without any real significant benefit?” Tew wrote.

“Most importantly, the GTS pilot doesn’t remove what we’ve seen as the biggest impediment to start-ups (and any business) bringing in foreign workers – the high cost of the visa (including the compulsory Skilling Australia Fund levy).”

Under the program large businesses need to pay workers at least $180,000 while startup positions had to be above $53,900. Companies also have to pay visa fees – over $10,000 over four years in some cases. The amount includes a levy to the Skilling Australia fund.

Businesses with a turnover of less than $10 million pay $1,200 per year into the SAF as part of the visa fees while business with a turnover of $10 million or more only need to pay an extra $600 per year.

According to Tew, “The mandatory payment of the SAF levy in addition to the very high government lodgement fees, can be crippling for a bootstrapping start-up where every dollar counts.”

Industry welcomes continuation

StartupAUS chief executive and chair of the the visa program’s Start-up Advisory Panel, Alex McCauley, said the continuation of the GTES is welcome news for local startups.

“Although the scheme took some time to build momentum, we are pleased the government recognised the sector’s ongoing need here. I expect the program will continue to grow and become part of the standard toolbox for Australian startup founders when recruiting talent.”

McCauley said the program was “solid policy” and showed the government was listening to the startup community.

“This program provides a really valuable path to high quality visas for startups all over the country. Now that the pilot is over we’d like to see more companies signing up to take advantage of it.”

Melanie Perkins, CEO and cofounder of multibillion dollar Australian tech company Canva, said the program had helped fill technology skills shortages.

“Our ability to bring in top talent from overseas will help us to continue to deliver on our huge product roadmap, which is essential to the success and growth of Canva,” Perkins said in a government media release.

 “As a result of skills training and knowledge transfer, we’ve been able to strengthen our people’s skills in technology and innovation, which in the long-run will help create more employment and economic opportunities in Australia.”

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