The Guardian 8 March, 2006
Old fashioned exploitation
Immigrants being used to solve Western Australia’s skills crisis are losing their homes and having their families ripped apart, courtesy of the Howard Government’s guest labour regime. Seoul Broadcasting Service (SBS) is expected to show Koreans a documentary in the next week, based on shocking information about the treatment of their countrymen and women in Australia.
Journalists have been in WA interviewing trades people who claim they were brought to Australia under false pretences and ruthlessly exploited by a labour hire outfit, using federal Section 457 visas. Section 457 visas allow sponsored workers to stay in Australia for up to four years. The use of these visas is rising rapidly, with 40,683 granted in the year 2004-2005.
Statements from workers say they were conned into selling their homes and businesses to come to Australia. One said he signed a contract with a sponsor, in Korea, promising A$24.10 an hour but, ever since arriving, he has received a flat rate of $15 an hour, despite regular overtime and weekend work.
When he complained, he said, he was threatened with deportation.
Another said he was promised A$72,000 a year but after the labour hire company made deductions for a range of items, including "legal services" and "health insurance" he received only $840 for a regular 56-hour week. When his toddler was hospitalised for four days he was told not to worry, the expenses were covered. Now, he reports, they are being deducted from his wages.
At least two of the Koreans claim they were sacked after comparing wages with Aussie workmates. Another said he was ordered to sign a new contract after arriving in Australia. It was written in English, only, and he was forbidden any representation or advice.
Several of the Koreans claim that on arrival they were instructed to buy cars, all costing $21,000, on the basis that they couldn’t work without transport.
In a separate case, an angry South African welder says he has been split from his wife and children for more than a year, despite taking the job on the basis of visas for the whole family and the promise of permanent residence. In a desperate effort to reunite his family he has written to the Minister of Immigration.
The South African says that when he asked about his family’s visas, his employer said he would only proceed with them if he signed a new contract and bonded himself for at least another two years.
"The details of the letter were that I sign another agreement over and above the first one I signed before I landed in Australia and also that I must agree to work for him for two years and should I leave within the time specified I will have to pay Industry Partners $5,000", he said.
"In the meantime my family will not be able to join me in Australia because my application is on hold. When I tried to speak to him about the clause in this agreement he said ‘it is not negotiable’."
Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) Branch Secretary, Jock Ferguson, calls the situation a "disgrace" and a "national embarrassment". His union has taken the workers’ cases to the Immigration Department and State Department of Consumer Protection.
Mr Ferguson said the matter is a human rights issue.
"These people must be treated with respect and dignity", he stated. "We are not going to allow unscrupulous employers to use the skills shortage as a cover for old-fashion discrimination and exploitation.
"Unfortunately, WorkChoices and Federal Government attitudes work against us, because their bottom line is to give employers a free hand to do what they want."
The AMWU has been at the forefront of fighting dodgy immigration deals. Two years ago, it blew the whistle on large scale exploitation of skilled South African tradesmen across WA.
Some of those workers were earning less than a third of what Australians working alongside them were being paid. At the time, one boilermaker publicly likened his situation to "slavery".