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Working holiday scheme must move with times

November 19, 2013 • Editorials, Opinion,

The number of Irish passport holders applying for Australian working holiday visas has declined sharply.

The number of Irish passport holders applying for Australian working holiday visas has declined sharply.

The working holiday visa has been a good friend to Irish people in recent years, allowing thousands to come to Australia.

Overall, the programme continues to grow. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection released its annual report last week. In it, it notes a total 15.8 per cent growth in the working holiday maker programme.

Some 258,248 people from a wide range of countries took part in the scheme in the financial year 2012-13.

There were increases in grants for all WHM visa categories: first working holiday (sub-class 417), second working holiday (sub-class 417) and work and holiday (sub-class 462).

Britain remains the chief source of visa-holders across these categories, with the gap year still hugely popular as a rite of passage. Korea, Taiwan, Germany and France round out the top five contributing nations.

Ireland, however, has seen a notable reduction in the number of grants for working holiday visas in the past financial year – the numbers have slid by almost 40 per cent.

Some 11, 817 Irish people were granted first-year working holiday visas in the past financial year, with 7,300 securing its second-year incarnation through regional work.

The decline in the number of Irish grants is interesting, given that the scheme has been so overwhelmingly popular with people from Ireland.

While the department does not offer much by way of explanation for the slide in Irish numbers, there are perhaps a few factors at play.

By virtue of the fact that so many Irish people have already come to Australia under the scheme, fewer are available use it. In short, Ireland is beginning to run out of eligible candidates.

Irish people – and one suspects many will forgive the generalisation – are often keenly attuned to their chances of finding work. With reports over the past 18 months that backpacker work can be hard to come by, some might be choosing not to risk it. Australia has competitors too.

Researchers from the University College Cork’s Émigré project noted in their recent widespread study of Irish emigration patterns how Canada is emerging as a popular destination of choice. It certainly provides competition for Australia in the working holiday visa market. The International Experience Canada programme introduced significant changes this year which will now allow Irish applicants to live and work there for up to two years.

The Canadian programme is closer to Ireland and also has the advantage of a limitless work period within that two years.

In Australia, the six-month limit on work per employer is an ongoing frustration for applicants who have gone through a difficult job-hunting process.

For stakeholders in the tourism and travel industry, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the working holiday maker programme is due for an update.

A report released by Tourism Research Australia last week shows the industry is due to meet a target of $140 billion overseas visitor spending by 2020.

Changing the makeup of the working holiday maker programme can help the industry reach that goal.

China and Vietnam would provide a real boon to the scheme and it is bizarre, given successive governments’ statements about the importance of Asia, that they have yet to be included under the scheme. Tourism bodies have already called for the age limit of 30 to be lifted. The removal of the six-month work limit is long overdue.

The immigration minister must look urgently at the scheme to address its flaws, lest Australia be left behind as global competitors evolve.

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