11 November 2008

Australian temporary workers and unions meet with govt

The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Senator Chris Evans met with unions and Australian temporary workers yesterday to discuss issues of exploitation, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

Five workers who are part of the skilled temporary overseas workers (457 visa) met with the Minister and trade union officials from the Australian Nursing Federation, the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union, and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) on 10 November 2008.

The unions claim employers are forcing temporary workers to work when ill and are threatening them with personal injury. 

CFMEU national secretary John Sutton said the 457 visa programme works well to ease skill shortages in the country by allowing overseas workers to reside temporarily in Australia for employment purposes, and that the number of workers on 457 visas had nearly tripled since 2000.  However, he also worries that the government is not doing enough done to prevent the exploitation of foreign workers in Australia.

"Not only does this scheme allow for exploitation and intimidation of workers, it also often sees employers exaggerating skills shortages to justify the use of these vulnerable workers," Mr Sutton said.

The Australian Nursing Federation federal secretary, Gerardine Kearney, said temporary foreign workers in Australia feel they cannot stand up for their rights as an employee as they are reliant on a single employer.  Holders of the 457 visa must be sponsored by an employer in Australia to fill a nominated position, and Ms Kearney says the fear of being fired or deported restraints them from speaking out about their situation.

"We look forward to the public release of the recent Deegan Inquiry into the 457 scheme, which each of our unions have submitted to," said Ms Kearney, reported on the NSW Nurses Association website.

AMWU national president Julius Roe said the government should concentrate on training local workers to fill the positions and encouraging permanent, rather than temporary, migration to Australia.

"Australia needs a balanced approach that obliges employers to train local workers rather than relying on vulnerable temporary migrant labour. Where real skills shortages exist permanent migration should be the primary policy response," said Mr Roe.

"Australia needs a balanced approach that obliges employers to train local workers rather than relying on vulnerable temporary migrant labour.  Where real skills shortages exist permanent migration should be the primary policy response," said Mr Roe.

However, the Minister has already been working to provide fairer working conditions for Australian temporary workers.  Senator Evans signed an agreement with WorkCover NSW to protect overseas workers in Australia on 457 visas during September this year.


The agreement allows the names and addresses of employers of 457 visa holders to be exchanged, as well as information regarding workplace safety issues, reports MSN News.


Senator Evans told reporters the agreement was necessary as the number of temporary Australian visa holders is growing rapidly, and the number of businesses hiring 457 holders is also increasing. 


Senator Evans said the government and organisations will be putting extra pressure on businesses to meet their obligations as employers of 457 visa holders, or they will face the penalties.


"We are watching you closely and if you don't meet your immigration or workplace obligations, you will attract the attention of a number of government agencies," he told reporters in Sydney.


The Migration Legislation Amendment (Worker Protection) Bill 2008 will protect workers from exploitation by increasing the powers to monitor and investigate employers for exploitation, introduce harsh penalties for employers found breaching their labour agreements, improving information sharing throughout government departments, and clearly defining the obligations of the sponsor and employer. The increased powers will mean departmental officers will be specifically trained for workplace investigation.  Employers found not complying with their obligations according to the labour agreement could be fined up to $33,000 or be barred from further sponsorship of overseas workers.  The Commissioner of Taxation will now also have the power to provide the DIAC with tax information regarding visa holders and sponsors so that 457 visa holders are being paid to Australian standards. 

“The temporary working visa scheme is only sustainable if the community is confident that overseas workers are not being exploited or used to undermine local wages and conditions,” Senator Evans added.

Over the next financial year, $19.6 million will be allocated to improving the temporary skilled migration program.

The Australian Visa Bureau is an independent consulting company specialising in helping people with their Australian visa application.

Article by Jessica Bird, Australian Visa Bureau.

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