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Issue #1597      June 12, 2013

Ruthless corporate sharks cash in on temporary visa rorts

Australian unions have fought a long battle against the misuse of temporary immigration visas to bypass Australian award wages and conditions. The rorts invariably involve the appalling maltreatment of overseas workers by employers, immigration agents and money lenders.

Temporary work visas are supposed to be used only where the Australian workforce cannot meet the requirements of the employer in terms of the number of positions and the level of skill required.

Section 457 visas are granted to workers from other countries to work in Australia on a temporary basis. Section 187 visas allow skilled workers to gain employment here, and to eventually get permanent residency, if they are sponsored by an Australian employer.

Supporters of the temporary visa scheme have argued that if it is used legitimately Australian workers will benefit because it will boost the local economy.

However, the reality is that ever since it was introduced the scheme has been used to supply employers with a labour force that will work for a tiny fraction of the prevailing wage rates and conditions as specified in awards or union negotiated enterprise agreements.

Some of the clearest evidence of rorting has been in the construction industry, where examples of the use of temporary workers despite the availability of Australian labour are commonplace.

This was demonstrated dramatically last February when a contractor brought a team of 457 visa workers to a Melbourne water treatment plant construction site in helicopters, over the heads of local tradespeople who were protesting at not being employed. The visa workers later said that the work they were doing was not complicated and could easily have been carried out by local workers.

The former Victorian Bailleau Liberal government applied pressure to the owner of the site to make a complaint about the presence of members of the local community who were picketing the gates.

Picketting by unions is now illegal. The right-wing HR Nichols Society provided a secret recording device to a journalist who was going to interview a union leader, at the site, with the intention of getting him to say that the union was organising the picket, rather than the local community.

Overseas workers also ripped off

In addition to the examples of job losses for Australian workers there is now mounting evidence that hundreds of overseas workers have been tricked into working on poorly paid jobs after having been promised highly paid work – and often after they’ve paid up huge fees for the chance to work here.

A recent investigation revealed 200 cases where 457 visa workers have been placed under crippling debt burdens by unscrupulous employers and migration agents. That’s undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg.

Some of the work contracts state that the temporary workers would be sacked if they engaged in trade union activities or fell ill. A group of 29 Filipino workers has lodged an official complaint with their embassy that they have had to direct part of their wages to repay work agents for immigration loans at interest rates of up to 50 percent.

Another group of 100 Indian citizens, some with Masters degrees, were persuaded to pay up to $40,000 to an Australian company Clinica Internationale, for help in obtaining Section 187 visas. But many of them were used as unskilled labourers.

The way forward

A case can certainly be made for granting some visas to overseas workers. The Chinese government is currently using a complete team of Chinese workers to build their new embassy in Canberra. They had one built in 1995, using a local contractor, but they subsequently found out that the Australian government had planted listening devices all over it, and it had to be abandoned. You can hardly blame them now for being careful!

However, there’s no way that the abuse of the temporary visa scheme can be justified. The secretary of the ACTU, Dave Oliver, described them as “a national shame … where workers are becoming bonded labour”. He commented: “The only thing you can call this is a racket involving migration agents, middlemen … and loan sharks.”

The corporate world sees the situation very differently. It offers businesses an opportunity to break the solidarity of local workers and their unions, and to set local and overseas workers against each other in a race to the bottom with regard to pay and conditions.

A Liberal/National Coalition government would certainly do its utmost to help them achieve that effect. Moreover, in order to gain an electoral advantage, the coalition will undoubtedly encourage the image of overseas workers as the invaders, the “job stealers”.

In contrast, the Gillard government allocated $800,000 in the federal budget for the employment of 300 inspectors from the Fair Work ombudsman’s office, to enforce the temporary visa rules. The government has also promised to “toughen up” the visa legislation, to include tougher tests to verify that skill shortages do exist.

That would be an excellent move. However, the wording has not been released to the public, and it has run into initial resistance from some MPs, including Kevin Rudd, Martin Ferguson and Nick Champion.

It’s also possible that in formulating the legislation Labor will follow the Liberals’ lead, and try to win electoral support by capitalising on the fear of Australian workers over possible job losses, rather than by devising a scheme to protect the interests of both local and overseas workers.

After all, the punitive asylum seeker policies of both the two major parties are based on exploiting the public’s fear of the invader, to gain political advantage.

Any racist, divisive depiction of overseas workers as “job stealers” must be defeated. The temporary visa workers are not the enemy of the Australian working class. The task the Australian trade union movement now faces is not to shut them out, but rather to welcome them as part of the international working class, and to fight to ensure they’re paid the same wage rates and enjoy the same working conditions and other entitlements as local workers.

That’s a monumentally difficult task, given the restrictions that have been placed on the unions with regard to access to employees, in particular overseas workers. But the union movement has done it before, very successfully, and it’s still the right way to go.  

Next article – NSW govt to impose new pay and conditions on nurses and midwives

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