In April 2014, the CFMEU asked then Employment Minister Eric Abetz to start an urgent investigation into the exploitation of 457 visa workers at Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill iron ore project.
A whistleblower said up to 200 white-collar 457 visa workers, about half of whom were Korean nationals aged under 30, many of them female, were clocking up more than 84 hours a week at a pay rate of $16 per hour from contractor Samsung C&T. Many were not working in the occupations approved for their visas – a breach of the sponsoring employer’s obligations, the CFMEU claimed.
Then on 4 May 2015, an investigation by the ABC’s Four Corners program revealed exploitation of certain groups of migrant workers, many on Working Holiday Maker (WHM) (417 and 462) visas, in the meat processing and horticulture industries. Issues included the underpayment of wages, long working hours, and sub-standard living conditions. Unscrupulous labour hire contractors were implicated in many of the instances of non-compliance with Australia’s workplace laws.
This was followed by, on 31 August 2015, a joint investigation by Four Corners and Fairfax Media which revealed the deliberate falsification of employment records by employers (franchisees) and the systemic underpayment of the wages and entitlements of international students working on temporary visas in many 7-Eleven convenience stores across Australia.
In March this year, a Senate committee produced a report titled A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders which examined these, and many more cases, and the implications of the various temporary work visas more broadly.
Mr Peter Mares, Adjunct Fellow at the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University of Technology, observed at least 2000 people have been in Australia on a temporary visa for at least 10 years and another 18,000 have been in Australia for eight years or more on temporary visas. Mr Mares also noted that about 3000 people who met the eligibility criteria for permanent residency, and who have paid for and had applications for permanent residency lodged for more than five years, are still awaiting a response from the DIBP about their application.
Being indefinitely temporary has consequences in terms of a lack of access to rights and entitlements: They will never vote and they will never run for office. They pay taxes and they do have access to Medicare, but they do not have access to Centrelink, apart from a very limited six-month window after 10 years. They have to pay full up-front fees for their students to go to university and they pay for the National Disability Insurance Scheme but they cannot access the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
A host of submissions detailed the exploitation and intimidation of temporary visa workers with many too scared to complain about mistreatment for fear of being deported. The unions supported some of these people in giving evidence to the committee.
The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) provided evidence about the exploitation of a group of Filipino 457 visa workers in the power industry previously employed by Thiess. The ETU submitted a Thiess contract signed by the Executive General Manager of Thiess Services Pty Ltd which contained a clause stating that if a 457 visa worker engaged in trade union activities, their contract could be terminated. As a consequence of termination, the worker would need to return to the Philippines (with their family) at their own expense. This is, of course, illegal.
The Azarias review found significantly higher levels of non-compliance relating to employers of 457 visa workers in particular industries such as construction, hospitality and retail, and amongst small businesses with nine or less employees.
Mr Edwin De Castro, a Filipino 457 visa worker, worked as a welder and metal fabricator for the Taiwanese company, Chia Tung Development, constructing a feed mill in Narrabri. He was recruited by a labour hire company in the Philippines. Once in Australia, Mr De Castro was required to work ten hours a day for six or seven days a week over a two month period at Narrabri.
Mr De Castro also stated that the working conditions were unsafe: “They forced us to work unsafely because they never provided proper scaffoldings. We used an old harness. We did not have the right to refuse, although we knew it was unsafe”.
Furthermore, the accommodation was substandard, overcrowded, and expensive: “…we were six in one bedroom and another in a shipping container – while they were deducting $250 each week for each of us for our accommodation.”
Mr De Castro explained that Chia Tung ‘never provided pay slips’ and that his salary was remitted in United States (US) dollars from Taiwan to his bank account in the Philippines. Although a food allowance was in the hiring agreement, Mr De Castro stated that Chia Tung did not provide a food allowance.
Mr De Castro also recounted the circumstances in which Chia Tung dismissed the 457 visa workers without notice and evicted them from their accommodation: “During the night they forced us to leave the premises, because we were living on the site. The police said that our contract had been terminated. They did not give any notice to us or inform us. They forced us to leave the premises, otherwise they said they would charge us with trespassing. So we moved to a motel that night. They were planning to ship us out of the country to avoid any troubles, but it was stopped by the union.”
Mr De Castro explained that the CFMEU prevented the workers from being deported and found them new jobs: “The CFMEU secretary and organiser Dave Curtain helped us. They feed us and paid for everything – our stay in the motel in Narrabri for more than a week. They brought us here to Sydney and found us new jobs. We are very lucky that we have one now.”
Chia Tung grossly underpaid the visa workers. According to Mr David Curtain, a CFMEU organiser, the CFMEU has recovered $883 000 for 38 workers who had been employed for between six weeks and four months. Mr Curtain also noted that once the superannuation to which the workers were entitled was paid, the final figure for the underpayments would be in excess of $1 million.
Mr Curtain advised the committee that this sort of exploitation was widespread in the construction industry. He recounted a similar example from Bomaderry where 16 Filipino and 13 Chinese nationals were suffering similar exploitation including overwork, underpayment, safety concerns, and ‘atrocious’ living conditions.
Mr Curtain also explained why migrant workers are unwilling to complain. The reasons include a justifiable fear of being sacked and deported, and also a fear of what might happen to their families back in their home countries: “They were being bullied. They had a foreman down there who had come out on, I think, a 600 class visa. It was well known that his family was involved in the Filipino military. The guys down there understood it and they had expressed to us that they had grave concerns that, if they spoke out and caused trouble, there might very well be trouble back home for their families.”
So what does the government do in light of this weight of evidence of corrupt employer practices, particularly in the construction industry?
They go after the union that tried to protect the workers. They want the CFMEU members to be subject to secret interrogation with no representation that no other citizen endures.
And the employers?
Our Intrepid Minister for Union Bashing has announced a Migrant Workers’ Taskforce.
The Taskforce will run for 18 months and will report on a regular basis to Minister Cash and other relevant Ministers as required.
Its website helpfully informs workers that “The Fair Work Ombudsman can also help if you have a workplace problem.” Likewise, employers are advised “The Fair Work Ombudsman can give you information and advice to help you understand your workplace rights and responsibilities.”
So the unions that help the workers get a draconian new, and very expensive, tough cop on the beat, but any questions about safety concerns or exploitation by employers can just be referred to the existing body who will presumably inform the Taskforce who will inform the Minister who may or may not have another inquiry.
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