Pressure from unions over the exploitation of foreign workers employed under the 457 visa scheme for temporary workers has forced the Howard government to tighten some of the regulations.
On June 21, federal immigration minister Kevin Andrews introduced the Migration Amendment (Sponsorship Obligations) Bill 2007 into parliament, claiming it would give the government the necessary power to stop the abuse of vulnerable foreign workers by "a small minority of employers who have sought to abuse the program".
In reality, bosses have used the 457 visa scheme to attack the wages and conditions of all workers. Vulnerable workers, notably from China and the Philippines, are lured to work in Australia with the promise of high wages, often only to find themselves working long hours in poor conditions, in jobs for which they are not trained. Workers are routinely forced to pay migration agents' fees — up to $20,000 — and threatened with the sack and deportation if they complain or attempt to join a union.
Deaths of workers on 457 visas as a result of unsafe working conditions have been reported by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). Three workers on 457 visas were killed in the month from late May to late June. One was a Chinese man working in the timber industry in north Queensland. "He was working as a logger even though he did not have the right skills", CFMEU national secretary John Sutton said.
The amendments introduced by Andrews require that employers pay 457 visa workers at least the minimum wage set down in legislation (currently $41,850). But they do not prevent bosses from forcing these workers to accept individual contracts (AWAs) that strip their entitlements to penalty rates, overtime and other conditions.
"The legal minimum wage that is guaranteed to a 457 worker is virtually a salary", wrote Harry Williams, researcher for the Centre of Full Employment and Equity in February. "It is not for a 38-hour week but covers any amount of hours worked at whatever time, thus eliminating any penalty rates, so extra wages to which these people are entitled, are not being paid. Also Regional Certifying Board exemptions allow employers to pay the award rate rather than the current market rate which is significantly more than the award rate."
Other changes to the law include the requirement for bosses to pay: the return flights of 457 visa holders and their families from Australia and some of the workers' medical costs and migration agents' fees; and the imposition of stiffer penalties on bosses who abuse the system.
But according to Ian Bray, assistant secretary of the Western Australian branch of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), the government's visa reforms are "only scratching the surface", and keeping the 457 visas in place helps fuel racism.
"Our view remains the same. [Howard] is using [457 visas] to force a race to the bottom, pitting worker against worker. If he was fair dinkum, he'd do away with 457 visas and set up a system of immigration giving [foreign] workers all the rights of Australian workers", Bray told Green Left Weekly. The WA branch of the MUA has launched an information and education drive among members about the visas and foreign workers' rights, Bray said.