Sunday, October 21, 2007

Section 457 visa workers exploited by bosses, protected by unions

After years of chronic under funding of Australia’s Technical and Further Education (TAFE) colleges, Australian industries have been hit by a shortage of skilled workers and an absence of young apprentices going into workplaces.

Since 1998, the year Howard was first elected Prime Monster, funding cuts to TAFE are estimated to have denied 300,000 young people places at TAFE colleges.

To make up this politically-created skills shortage, the Howard Government has encouraged employers to bring in overseas workers on Section 457 visas.

“Let other countries pay for the educating of skilled workers,” seems to be Howard’s reasoning, “and we’ll procure them on a just-in-time basis, like factories do with their parts and materials. And then we can send them home when they’re not needed so they’re not a drain on the public purse.”

And Section 457 visa workers are not required to be paid Australian Award wages, thus applying downward pressure on hard-won wages and conditions.

Out of India, China, the Philippines they come, and into the shittiest jobs, the most dangerous jobs, and to the remotest localities they go.

For a couple of years now, we’ve seen Chinese going into abattoirs - 100 plus families going to Murray Bridge with no advance notice given to the community or the local schools to prepare the social and educational infrastructure that a group this size needs and to which it is entitled.

More going to Naracoorte at a time when local meatworkers were engaged in a struggle with the boss.

These are some of the dirty jobs.

The dangerous ones are in construction. And if the workers don’t understand English, as many don’t, then they are immediately behind the eight ball when it comes to understanding occupational health and safety issues.

A Darwin plastering firm tried to put pressure on one of its workers to go to China and recruit 60 workers, despite there being local tradespeople capable of doing the work, and local youth in need of training and work.

In central Queensland, construction giant John Holland Pty Ltd is threatening to replace local workers with Section 457 visa workers if the former refuse to sign un-Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs). The Award rate was about $1800 for a 46 hour week, plus about $130 as an employer contribtion to superannuation. The ten Section 457 visa workers already there were given one hour to read their AWA contracts under which they are only paid $1022 per week with $92 for super. This is a loss of over $800 per week.

Even more disgusting has been the case of two Chinese brought in to work in Sydney who were fired by their boss, evicted from their accommodation and threatened with deportation.

Neither Gong Wei nor Huang Jiandong had a working knowledge of English when they were recruited by an agent in a rural area of Jiangsu Province. Their first problem emerged with the recruitment process itself, each having to pay the agent $12,000 as a condition of recruitment.

They were then given to understand that they would be paid $16,000 (close to RMB100, 000) for a six-day week, not understanding that this was far below the Award rate for workers in Australia doing the same work.

The reality was even worse. They were treated like slaves, being given only $50 per week for living expenses, having to share a small three bedroom house with up to seven other workers, and made to work excessive hours - sometimes 17 hours, or through to one o’clock in the morning!

Nor was their work what it had been described as in China. They were transferred to the construction of a new house for their employer, the owner of Elite Marble and Granite Furniture.

When the two men complained about being underpaid, they were sacked by their boss, which resulted in the termination of their visas, meaning that they could no longer work and were required to return to China. They were also evicted by police from their house because they could no longer pay the rent, and forced into homelessness, appealing to the cops to arrest them so that they would have somewhere – jail – to stay.

However, the construction union, the CFMEU, stepped in and took up their case.

Firstly, it arranged temporary food and shelter.

Secondly, it ensured that they were not deported before their claim against the boss for full payment of wages owed was heard by the courts.

Thirdly, it brought the issue to the attention of the public, inviting the two workers to participate in a demonstration protesting unfair treatment of Chinese workers on Section 457 visas and obtaining, as a result, mass media coverage of the issues.

Fourthly, it arranged for the two to attend a meeting of Unions NSW as delegates of the CFMEU so that they could explain the situation to the peak body of all unions in New South Wales.

Gong Wei told this meeting that he wanted to thanks Unions NSW, the CFMEU and his solicitor for preventing their deportation, and assisting them to obtain a temporary visa. He also thanked the CFMEU for its assistance in fighting for their proper wages and back pay.

Gong also congratulated the Australian trade union movement for their support for guest workers in Australia to be treated with dignity.

He said he fully supported the Your Rights at Work Campaign to have fairer workplace laws.

Which brings us back to the TAFE issue.

Whilst there will be acceptable circumstances in which labour moves between countries, (and certainly there are growing numbers of skilled Australians working all over the globe), the answer to the skills shortage is not a visa system that allows vulnerable guest workers to be exploited by parasites and thugs, but the proper funding of the TAFE system.

Donald Peter is a lecturer at Regency Park TAFE in South Australia, and Chair of the TAFE Divisional Council of the Australian Education Union. He says:

“Regardless of the public and private agendas of the economic rationalists within incumbent and would be governments, there is voter support for a properly funded public education system.”

“A coupling of the TAFE and Secondary education sectors with pathways between TAFE and secondary levels would allow students to move seamlessly between the two systems creating complementary parallel education streams as distinct from the current continuum, ie leave school and start TAFE.”

This complements the view of the CFMEU, namely, that “the future of our industry depends on skills development and training, not importing and exploiting workers on temporary 457 visas.”

1 comment:

Amigos de Cuba said...

And now we have proposals from Gerry Harvey for a 'second-tier' of foreign labour, what a genius! I mean really, why pay foreign labourers more than half of the local wage when you can exploit the absolute shit out of them. It just makes no sense :-P

Nice blog. Keep up the great work! I've linked it to ours.