Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Unexpected school fees in WA ‘will push many Irish families to breaking point’

The introduction of a AU$4,000 fee per child for 457 visa holders is unexpected and unfair, writes Claire Calvey

Thu, Aug 22, 2013, 17:12


Claire Calvey

The recent Western Australia state budget, which called for the introduction of a mandatory school fee of AU$4,000 per child per annum for 457 visa holders, has caused a flurry of debate and speculation among 457 holders and the wider Irish community.

The 457 visa is a temporary working visa which allows an individual to work for four years in the country while being sponsored by an employer. Workers on the visa pay the same rate of tax as permanent residents, without receiving the same perks such as free healthcare or family assistance. It also means that should they lose their job, they have just 90 days to find an alternative sponsor before being obliged to leave the country.

However, since these facts are laid out under the terms of the visa, workers arrive fully aware and accepting of them. This shocking move to introduce school fees is seen as an unfair shifting of the goal posts for those already here.

The fee, to be introduced in January 2014, will place an unexpected financial burden on many families in WA, pushing many to breaking point.

A family on a 457 visa will be faced with four options when this policy comes into effect: leave Australia, home-school their kids, apply for Permanent Residency (PR) or simply pay up.

The obvious solution is to apply to be a permanent resident, but recent increases in visa costs have now put this option out of reach for many people. The cost of the visa for a family with five children for example, has increased from $3,060 to $9,860 in the past three months (taking into consideration the increases being introduced in September), and that’s before the cost of medicals, skills assessments and IELTS (English language testing) have been taken into account.

For those families who only ever intended to come for the four year duration of the visa, applying for PR is an unwelcome but unavoidable cost if they wish to have their children educated in a state school for free. And processing times for the visa can take up to 18 months, while success of it being granted is not guaranteed.

Families opting to return home may face repaying any costs incurred by their employing sponsor, which can run into tens of thousands if the employer in question paid the initial relocation costs. To avoid this many families face splitting up, with the spouse and children returning home while the visa holder stays on to finish out their contract.

Majella Ni Meischil Burchill from Co Cork faces either repaying her husband’s employer AU$15,000 so he can break his contract, or returning home to Ireland alone with her four children, leaving him behind to work out the rest of his contract.

The Australian government is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, article 28, which provides that “all children have the right to a primary education, which should be free”.

It would seem the WA State Government is in contravention of this convention, but according to Rebecca Gieng, from the Australian Human Rights Commission, “whilst it may be possible to allege a breach against the Commonwealth Government in this regard, it does not appear that you can do so against the WA State Government”. This makes the Rights of the Child nothing more than lip-service in WA, an aspiration, with no real intent behind it.

As late as 2012, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) and the WA Chamber of Commerce (CCIWA) were holding expos in cities all over the UK and Ireland to entice skilled workers and graduates to WA.

In 2011 the WA State’s then minister for energy, training and workforce development, Peter Collier, said during a visit to Ireland that one third of Ireland’s 450,000 unemployed people could potentially find jobs in Western Australia.

In an interview, the minister said WA faced a shortfall of 150,000 workers by 2017, adding “Well, we can look after a third of those”.

Speaking at a seminar at Citywest Hotel he joked that if the right people turned up on the day they could “come back on the plane with us if we can get them”, adding that Perth offered a “wonderful quality of life and more importantly, employment”.

What he didn’t add or couldn’t see was that within just over a year the education system in WA would be buckling under this influx he so readily sought, and would start charging the children of these workers AU$4,000 to attend public schools.

State premier Colin Barnett’s bewilderment at the sharp rise in children on 457 visas (from 290 in 2005 to 8,600 today), seems startlingly naïve considering the aggressiveness of this recruitment drive (which still continues to this day). Did it not occur to him and his colleagues while they were breathlessly extolling the virtues of a life Down Under, that many of these workers came with families?

If it had occurred to them, it may have saved many of these families a lot of heartache.

Dennis Vaughan Owens, from Anglesey in North Wales, arrived to Perth with his family a month ago with high hopes for a decent future.

A roof slater who specialises in heritage work, he was approached by a company from Perth to come to WA to teach Australian apprentices the art of natural slate work.

“The 457 visa came about because I was needed here urgently. Within four months of a job offer, I was here.”

Vaughan Owens initially travelled to Perth alone to assess living costs and get a feel for the place. It all seemed good and after two months he returned to Wales to round up his wife and five children.

“We sold everything we had to get here, cost us AU$14,000 to move us and the rest of our belongings, but I believed I’d done the right thing. I knew we would struggle initially, but we did our research and were confident that after a while we’d be ok.”

Vaughan Owen’s now has to find AU$20,000 by January if he wants his children to attend school next year. And being on a 457 visa, he can’t apply for a loan to fund a PR application.

“If we have to go home, we go back to Wales with nothing; no car, no house, no job – no furniture even, because we put everything we had into coming here to work, pay tax, pass on my skills to Aussie kids, all in exchange for a bit of sunshine!”

The impact of these fees on the wider community is yet to be seen, but already commentators from regional areas of WA are voicing concerns. The chief executive of the Pilbara Regional Council (PRC), Tony Friday, said in an interview last month that local councils had lodged a proposal to the Department of Training and Workforce Development to bring in more foreign workers, which are vital to the small businesses and services in regional areas. HR manager Ken Sharpe, from engineering group CPC in Kalgoorlie, said in a radio interview last week that his company faced losing many of their much needed 457 workers if these fees went ahead.

This will impact not just on employers, but on schools and the communities in general.

Although the government has yet to comment on the specifics of the proposed fees, Irish and UK 457 holders have already joined forces in protest, and a vigorous campaign has been launched.

A Facebook page 457s in Oz is serving as the central hub of the campaign, and dozens of letters, emails and phone calls have been made to local MPs, employers and unions by those affected, as well as dozens of media interviews.

Cairde Sinn Fein and Stephen Dawson, a Dublin-born Labour member for the Mining and Pastoral Region, are championing the cause, and were present when the group presented a document entitled ‘457s in Western Australia – Education’ – outlining their concerns on the issue – to Parliament House today. A march is being organised for midday on September 19th, and a child wearing a school uniform will hand in a petition on the steps of Parliament House.

For more information, see 457s in Oz.