Widely held community and union concerns about the exploitation of 457 visa temporary migrant workers have been confirmed by a report released on November 14.
An independent review, conducted by industrial relations commissioner, Barbara Deegan, has found that "many subclass 457 visa holders are potentially vulnerable to exploitation as a consequence of their temporary status".
The 457 visa ostensibly exists to enable business to access workers with skills that are not available in the permanent resident workforce. However under the Howard government, the use of temporary migrant workers skyrocketed as employers sought to access large numbers of cheap and vulnerable migrant labour.
Despite the Rudd government's stated preference for permanent migration the temporary migrant worker scheme now rivals it with 58,000 primary 457 visas granted in 2007/2008. A further 50,000 secondary visas were granted to spouses and dependants.
A submission to the review from the Australian Human Rights Commission said workers on 457 visas had complained of not being paid overtime, working longer hours than permanent resident workers, having limited access to sick leave, dismissal if the worker takes sick leave and employers overcharging for accommodation.
The report notes examples of workers who, after asking about the pay and conditions or union membership, have been sacked by their sponsor and put on the next plane "home" as an example to other workers.
The review was commissioned by immigration minister Chris Evans as part of a pre-election government commitment to overhaul the notorious visa category.
A key recommendation of the report is to introduce a requirement for employers to pay genuine market rates. The recommendation is designed to limit the ability of employers to use the scheme to undermine wages and conditions.
Recent government data shows that 457 visa tradespersons on average earn more than $10,000 per year less than the average Australian tradesperson.
The report also recommends extending the period temporary migrant workers have to find an alternate sponsor from 28 to 90 days. Another proposal is to increase access to on-shore permanent residency applications for 457 visa workers.
Currently, workers often rely on the promise of future employer sponsorship for permanent migration. The report notes that "where a visa holder has permanent residency as a goal, that person may endure, without complaint, substandard living conditions, illegal or unfair deductions from wages, and other similar forms of exploitation".
Also recommended is a levy on employers to cover the cost of accessing the public health system.
Currently 457 visa workers are not able to access the public system despite paying tax (although they are exempted from paying the Medicare levy).
They are solely reliant on their employer to cover medical costs, including those of their dependants. This recommendation would serve to prevent a repeat of cases where employers have placed pressure on workers to avoid medical paying costs.
Evans has rejected this recommendation stating that "the Rudd Government believes it is important that temporary skilled overseas workers do not place an additional burden on Australia's public health system". However, the actual proposal is to place this cost burden on the employer, not the taxpayer.
Employer groups are preparing to hit back against the recommendations, concerned that their easy access to the cheap labour enjoyed over the last decade may be stemmed.
Australian Industry Group chief executive, Heather Ridout, told the November 14 Sydney Morning Herald that "serious cost burdens remain in the recommendations," and urged a "more balanced approach be adopted."
The recommendations will be considered by the government ahead of a series of reform proposals in 2009. Legislation is currently before the senate that will enable greater regulation and civil penalties for employers that breach visa obligations.
While reform to the 457 visa scheme is likely, the government has made it clear that some crucial changes are not on the table.
The government will not grant 457 visa workers full mobility to seek employment within the Australian workforce. The basic right to leave your employer and look for another job is not available to temporary migrant workers. Those who try to do so face losing their work rights in Australia and subsequent deportation.
This restriction is the root cause of the grossly exploitative practices of many bosses.
The release of the report follows the death of a 457 visa worker at Byrne trailers in Wagga Wagga in September. Lian Ron Xia, a welder from China, died as a result of a head injury sustained at work.
Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) organisers had attempted to gain entry to the site on two occasions prior to the tragedy. They were denied access by the employer Michael Byrne according to the November 11 SMH. Lian's death is the subject of a Workcover NSW investigation and coronial inquiry.
According to the SMH, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has stated that nine migrants on 457 visas have died in workplace-related accidents between January 1, 2006 and October 31 this year.
The SMH quoted research conducted by Immigration Ananylst Bob Kinnard which reveals that the fatality rate among 457 visa workers was 5.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2007. This compares with three deaths per 100,000 workers nationally.
Concerns exist that the higher rate is a result of 457 visa workers being forced to work in unsafe conditions.
Three unions — the Australian Nursing Federation, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union and the AMWU — have launched a united campaign to refocus public attention on the exploitation of temporary migrant workers. The unions organised a delegation of 457 visa workers to parliament in Canberra on November 10.
The delegation of five workers met with Evans to explain their experiences of exploitation by their sponsoring employer.
A joint sign-on statement launched by the unions concludes "we stand for equal rights for all workers regardless of their origin, including the right to stand up to voice concerns and to change employer without fear of deportation. An expanded reliance on temporary migration schemes where workers have diminished rights can't secure this".
The temporary migrant labour sign-on statement can be downloaded at http://www.amwu.org.au/campaigns/4/457visa