AMWU speaks out against 457-visa abuses


Earlier this year, three workers on 457 "guest worker" visas died on the job in separate incidents. Both the construction union (CFMEU) and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) are calling for an independent judicial enquiry into the treatment of all of the 50,000 workers on these visas. In many cases, these workers are underpaid and given heavy manual labour, rather then the skilled work that is stipulated in their visa conditions. Green Left Weekly's Andrew Martin interviewed AMWU Queensland state secretary Andrew Dettmar, about the 457 issue.

What do you think led to the deaths of the three 457 visa workers?

These deaths occurred in areas that have been de-regulated under the Howard government. What it shows, is that we've got a government that doesn't give two hoots about workers' rights. The government has taken over jurisdiction of health and safety regulations from the states and on top of Work Choices, it is an appalling set of circumstances for 457 visa workers — they have diminished rights in the workplace.

@question = Immigration minister Kevin Andrews says these deaths are isolated cases, that they're not linked to any sort of abuse of workers' rights. What is your point of view?

He can't be serious. Kevin Andrews is a politician who has a track record of completely ignoring workers' rights or fair treatment. After all, this is the man who sponsored the worst and most draconian industrial relations laws ever seen in Australia. He has form and the form is appalling.

What sort of conditions are 457 visa workers expected to work in?

The conditions vary — 457 visas were initially introduced to deal with a shortage of professionals in a variety of occupations such as doctors. We have a shortage of doctors thanks to PM John Howard's retrograde policies. Big overseas accounting firms have also employed people on these sorts of visas; people with high bargaining power who have an articulate understanding of their rights and the responsibilities of their employers. They were generally people with international mobility who would have no sort of trouble getting another position if things didn't work out. Typically, they'd work for a year or two and then leave.

Since then, 457 visas have been extended to cover areas of semi-skilled work. For instance, many of our members are welders. Often they're not qualified tradespeople, though some are. They are not from an English-speaking background and they don't understand their rights. Unscrupulous employers such as in the case of Dartbridge Welding are completely cavalier about meeting even John Howard's laws.

Dartbridge supposedly provided the minimum standards of employment for $41,850 per annum. However, Dartbridge took out $175 per week for accommodation, didn't pay overtime, took out money for medical insurance, money for food and money for transport. The AMWU raised concerns about this, but they were of no concern to [then immigration minister] Amanda Vanstone and her department.

What do you make of the government's claim that it'll come down on unscrupulous employers, as Andrews has claimed, "like a tonne of bricks"?

The thing is Andrews and his mates in federal parliament are running scared. The Dartbridge Welding case is an excellent illustration of exactly the lack of seriousness of this government when they say they are prepared to defend the rights of 457 visa workers.

The only reason the government got involved in the case of Dartbridge is because we pushed the issue into the public spotlight. We got questions asked in parliament; we got media publicity and only then did the government act. Three weeks earlier, the government wasn't interested in pursuing the issue.

We had a case where our members were discriminated against and victimisation was occurring. The first response of the federal government was to say "there is nothing we can do about it". Before the facts were publicised, Dartbridge Welding was being supported by the Australian Industry Group, the metal industry bosses' association.

We said to them that the nature of the Australian Workplace Agreements [AWAs — individual contracts] were incorrectly processed and, in fact, it was arguable that there was a fraud being perpetrated — that the law was potentially being broken by the nature of the documents that were being submitted or not submitted as the case may be.

The federal government said that it had found nothing wrong. The Office of Workplace Relations Services, as it was then called, said there was nothing wrong with the AWAs and there was no case to answer.

We got a letter from the federal government in late February/early March that said there was no case to answer and there's nothing it could do. Imagine our surprise then when in July we found out that Dartbridge was being taken to the Federal Magistrates Court in Brisbane by the Workplace Ombudsman on charges of mistreating 42 Filipino workers by failing to officially lodge workplace agreements.

The situation is appalling. The abuse of 457 visa workers is rife, but as it's an election year, the government has to make a show of defending the minimum standards of employment that it has set out. That is why Dartbridge is now being prosecuted.

Andrews claims the average wage of a 457 visa worker is $71,000 per year. Is it true that employers are paying "market" rates?

Well, the thing is, there is no market. We've got a situation where the minimum rate is $41,850, and the employer can discount 10% from that to take into account "regional variations".

The market rates those employers pay are not the rate that Australian workers earn. It's a quite perverse market which is set up by overseas providers where the workers themselves are being told that these are the rates being paid, but the idea that it's a market in any proper sense is just crap.

What are the unions doing to tackle the mistreatment of 457 visa workers?

Firstly, we're defending these workers against these injustices in court. We're taking Dartbridge to the Queensland anti-discrimination commission. There'll be a hearing on October 15.

More practically, we're organising among these workers. We now have a few hundred Filipino members who are on 457 visas. We've sponsored a visit by Elmer Labog, the national president of the Philippines KMU labour federation. He was in Brisbane talking to these Filipino workers and their families about ways we can work cooperatively to ensure that workers back in the Philippines know what the circumstances here are.

We haven't just used the KMU, we've used newspaper advertisements in the Philippines and elsewhere to inform people who are potentially coming to Australia about their rights.

In Western Australia, we are trying to set up some English language training. We're working with other unions to see what we can do, especially with our comrades in the meatworkers union, the ETU and the CFMEU, because we keep coming across these things. We're trying to mutually assist each other on this issue.