The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union's Western Australian branch has been organising Filipino workers employed in WA on section 457 visas. Joel Asphar, the AMWU organiser responsible for this work, told Green Left Weekly that "the campaign to recruit and organise these workers was not something we decided to do. It was out of necessity. I was responsible for the workshops south of the Swan river and there were 550 Filipino workers on 457 visas."
The visa minimum wage at the time was $39,000 a year, "but these workers were only being paid about one-third of the market rate".
Asphar said that at first the Filipinos were totally compliant with their employers. "They thought they had no rights at all. They thought the employer had the legal authority to deport them whenever they felt like it. They thought they had no right to question their conditions or join a union."
Asphar outlined a case of such abuse at Phillips Engineering, where skilled workers from the Philippines were paid the visa minimum wage. "This isn't legally wrong but it's morally wrong because it's one-third of the market rate", said Asphar. "The employer owned two houses. He had 12 guys in one and 14 guys in the other. The one with the 14 had three guys in the garage, two sleeping in walk-in wardrobes and the rest were three to a room. They were all paying $160 a week rent each. The employer's getting $2080 a week for a three-bedroom house, so he was making a huge profit on this rental property.
"The employer bought a shitty old van. The guys would drive that, maintain it and fuel it themselves and drive it five minutes to the workshop. The boss slugged them $50 a week each for the use of the van.
"The boss facilitated them getting access to Philippine satellite TV which costs $40 a fortnight to subscribe to, and he charged everyone $25 a week out of their pay to use it, so he's making a few hundred dollars profit from that every week as well.
"And then the agent would come over every Thursday to facilitate money transfers back to the Philippines and charge 10%, so he would walk out of the household with about $4000 as well."
"When we started the campaign, we made a few mistakes", said Asphar. "We first tried to recruit the Filipinos as part of normal organising around the workshops but they pretended they couldn't speak English. They had a deep distrust of unions at home and thought it was just the same here.
"We went around with activists from the Filipino organisation Migrante talking to the lads in their houses. We never signed up one person in the workshop. It was all at home. It ended up being four nights a week and at least one day on the weekend going out to talk to the guys in their homes.
"Once we began organising, we decided to convene a public meeting and got 90 Filipino workers to it. At the meeting we signed up a number of people to the union and got a big contact list. Then we went systematically from house to house.
"To service them, we couldn't go into a workshop and start banging on tables because they'd get sacked and we would have no recourse to do anything under Work Choices. If we believed there was a breach of the visa requirements, complaints would go to the immigration department so an audit of the workshop could be done. We've had quite a bit of success getting back payments for the workers. So the guys were getting real results from the union.
"When we started telling the Filipino lads that they had rights, they started questioning their employers. One guy, Victor, started asking about his rights. He was no longer a compliant worker so the boss approached him at 9am and gave him a ticket saying 'you're going home at 1pm today'. Victor said that he wanted to talk to the union because it had told him he had 28 days to find a new sponsor. The boss said that he couldn't get 28 days, and that he couldn't be a union member because he wasn't an Australian citizen. When Victor pulled out his union card, the boss backed down and said that the company would give him 28 days to find a new sponsor."
Of the 550 Filipinos employed by the company, 171 have joined the union, said Asphar. "They are very active members. When they sign a union card, they come to meetings, they vote in elections, they come to actions. Their courage has been a real inspiration. They're so brave. They've got the most to lose but they still fight the hardest.
"The most effective organising is coming from the lads themselves. They've now got their own district committee. It's a subcommittee of the AMWU South Metro district committee.
"There was a bit of resistance in the union to the Filipino lads having their own district committee, but it was necessary. They needed their own voice because they have specific issues because of their visa status. The end goal is to give them a bigger voice in the union.
"One goal of the district committee is that there should be no deportations that are not of the person's own free will. We've succeeded in not having anyone deported yet. We also want permanent residency for every single member who wants it.
"We've just convened free English lessons for them so they can deal with the English test. This new English requirement has further indentured them to their employers. Previously, if they found another employer who was prepared to sponsor them, they could apply for a new visa and they could move on. It's a hard process, but it can be done.
"With the new English requirement, less than half of them can do that.
"The AMWU has a preference to train local workers. On the larger projects when the employers say they wish to bring in migrant labour, we say that's OK where we've investigated and found there was a genuine skills shortage. But we've said that for every guy they bring in we want an apprentice somewhere else in the operation.
"While we've got a preference for the training of local workers first, we support skilled migration. Workers have every right to come here to improve their livelihood. We're not going to pit worker against worker. But we don't agree with the form of visa they're on. The visa gives very little protection to them.
"We believe they should have full citizenship rights but that's unrealistic in the short term so we've got to campaign for them, at least on their temporary visas, to have the right to change employers and have a smoother transition to permanent residency.
"I disagree with the view of some unionists that the 457 visa workers should go home. That's really closed-minded. People have every right to come here.
"If we're really serious about trade unionism, we have to represent all workers, not just Australian-born ones. We've got to act in the best interest of all workers and analyse the migrant worker situation to work out the best position to take for the good of all workers.
"We've got to recognise that the workers will be brought here anyway, so unless we organise them, they'll undercut the Australian wage. I see the immigration policy as quite linked to Work Choices."