24 February 2009

Guest workers fighting for permanent employment status

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The new pilot scheme to hire labour from the Pacific Islands has been live for barely a week, and already they are running into trouble, reports ABC News.

Fifty Tongan workers arrived Tuesday last week in regional Australia to start the long-awaited Pacific Islander guest worker pilot scheme.  Under the scheme, Australia would provide 2,500 temporary Australian working visas to labourers from Tonga, Vanuatu, Kiribati and Papua New Guinea so that specific horticultural regions can have extra labour to help harvest crops.

Not only has the scheme been under-fire from the Opposition as being responsible for taking jobs from the unemployed local Australians, the labour hire firm contracted to recruit workers from Tonga has confronted the Australian Workers Union (AWU) about the employment status of the workers.

The labour hire firm had apparently been assured that the workers would have permanent worker's entitlements, so that during their 7-month stint in Australia they would always have an income. 

Yet owners of the farm say that because of the nature of crop picking, they have never hired workers on a permanent basis in case there is no work for them.  They say, they could only hire workers under the pilot guest scheme as casuals, because they could not afford to have paid workers sitting at home when there is not crop to be harvested.

According to ABC, the Federal Government had discussed a framework with the AWU in which the workers would have the rights of permanent employees, despite their temporary Australian visa allowing them to work in Australia for a maximum of seven months a year.

There is also concern that the overseas workers would not get their 30-hour week as promised by the Government, and the AWU representative rebuked, saying the foreign workers should be getting the same conditions as any other local Australian worker.

"If an Australian was doing your job, they would be getting the same pay and conditions that you're doing now," he told the workers.


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