In COVID-era developments, the Australian federal government has confirmed the gradual discontinuation of a visa program that granted over 20,000 international students unrestricted work hours. Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil and Immigration Minister Andrew Giles jointly announced that the Pandemic Event visa (subclass 408) will cease accepting new applications starting from September 2.
For current visa holders, their lawful status will remain unaffected until the expiration of their existing visa. Additionally, they will have the option to extend their visa for an additional six months, subject to a fee of $405. However, come February 2024, the visa program will be entirely terminated, rendering it unavailable for all prospective applicants.
The program was initially introduced in 2020 to provide assistance to international students stranded in Australia during the pandemic while also addressing labour shortages resulting from the closure of international borders.
Recent data from Home Affairs indicates that in 2022, over 17,000 students received a 408 visa, a substantial increase from the roughly 3,000 students granted the same visa in 2021.
Highlighting the significance of the Pandemic Event visa within Australia’s visa framework during the pandemic, Mr. Giles remarked, “The Pandemic Event visa was an important part of Australia’s visa system during the pandemic. Many people on temporary visas helped Australia during this period.”
He further stated, “We’re providing an opportunity for people who hold a Pandemic Event visa to explore another visa option, or plan to leave Australia.”
In cases where individuals do not qualify for an alternative visa, the government has made it clear that departure from the country will be necessary. A government statement explained, “This will provide certainty to our visa system now that the circumstances that drove the operation of the [Pandemic Event] visa no longer exist.”
In conjunction with the cessation of this program, the government has reintroduced limitations on the number of hours that international students are permitted to work.
Starting from July 1, international students have been subject to a new work-hour restriction, allowing them 48 hours of work per fortnight. This cap represents an increase of eight hours compared to the limit in place prior to 2020.
Additionally, the government has ceased providing work exemptions for Working Holiday Visa holders, signalling a concerted effort to control Net Overseas Migration, which has been on the rise since the pandemic’s peak, according to an official statement.
However, concerns have been raised by advocates for international students who argue that reimposing work-hour caps could exacerbate the financial challenges already faced by this group, given the burden of overseas loans and the escalating cost of living.
A recent report from the Grattan Institute, released earlier this year, revealed that one in six migrant workers earned less than the minimum wage.
Economist Brendan Coates weighed in on the matter, asserting that while international students are susceptible to underpayment, the imposition of work-hour caps is necessary to safeguard the integrity of the visa system. He has also proposed a transition from a fortnightly cap to an annual one, which he believes would grant students “much more flexibility.”
Commencing on September 2, the Pandemic Event visa will exclusively accept applications from current holders, with a complete cessation of new applications scheduled for February 2024.
In tandem with this move, the government has taken steps to terminate other pandemic-era policies. Notably, this includes the revocation of unrestricted work hours for international students and the discontinuation of work exemptions for Working Holiday Visa holders.
Minister Giles elaborated that these actions are designed to “place downward pressure on net overseas migration,” which has been on the rise following the pandemic.
He added, “We’ve brought wait times down, and we’re working to make sure our migration system is working again for all Australians after a decade of mess and mismanagement under the Liberals.”