All workers are treated equal, right? Same award rates for the same work, equal pay for women and uniform national modern laws. But what about workers who are not allowed to work, such as refugees on bridging visas; or workers brought by employers to Australia on 457 visas, who are used for a short time and then sent back?
Are these workers being treated equally and how can their treatment affect the rest of us in the future?
In the case of refugees on bridging visas, government policy dictates they are not to be issued work permits and they are only to receive a little over 80% of the basic welfare wage.
This is not enough to sustain people in a normal, stable environment. It creates a situation where, if people get desperate enough, they may be used by some employers as cheap labour or be paid cash in hand on the quiet. When this happens, workers are too afraid to speak up for fear of deportation, and the boss knows it. This situation is nothing short of super-exploitation.
But surely this doesn’t happen, you might say. On the contrary, the Federal Workplace Ombudsman’s office is full of cases where the employers have used backpackers, overseas students and people in vulnerable situations for cheap labour. They are underpaid and ripped off as employers try to save a buck. Only a few short years ago, here in Geelong, there was the prosecution of the 7-Eleven store where students were being paid half the hourly rate.
The extreme of this type of super-exploitation can be found in the United States where there are about 8 million “illegal” immigrant workers. This unofficial situation has become so accepted that when conservative forces call for the expulsion of the workers and their families in a popular nationalist move, they are generally unsuccessful.
For example former US president George W Bush was forced by big capital some years ago to oppose expulsion, as the workers were seen as a critical workforce; many industries could not compete without them. Bush called on all Americans to tolerate the situation.
Generally this is not the case in Australia. But when government policy says that some workers cannot legally work, the scene is set for super-exploitation in the informal sector.
Similarly, workers brought here on 457 visas often find themselves in a situation where any complaint about safety, working conditions or wages could see them on the next plane home, sometimes with a debt to their labour hire agent.
This is always hard to prove, of course, because the worker is overseas and the Workplace Ombudsman has little ability to follow up complaints with workers in other countries. They can barely keep up with complaints about exploitation from workers who reside here permanently.
Last week, the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) found 20 Hungarian riggers, brought in on 457 visas to build a warehouse at Eastern Creek in Sydney's west. They were being paid less than the award wage.
The riggers were employed by a Hungarian company and contracted to a major Australian building firm. The CFMEU said it was investigating claims the workers were being paid less than $15 an hour. The men had been working at the Eastern Creek site for four months and said they had not seen a payslip.
CFMEU spokesperson, Rebel Hanlon, said some of the workers had been sent away after they raised concerns about their pay.
This illustrates the vulnerability of workers who do not have permanent residency status. The 457 visa is a government policy created for the employer to engage overseas workers on a precarious basis at the employer’s total discretion. This policy was always bound to be open to super-exploitation of workers.
The CFMEU’s response to this policy is similar to the Labor Party’s — essentially that it is fine to employ temporary workers on 457 visas if there are enforceable laws preventing employers using 457s when there are locally skilled people available. These 457 workers must also be employed on an equal basis with award wages.
But this situation, even if achievable, will still leave temporary workers open to super-exploitation. The best protection for workers, which provides full access to equal employment laws, is to have permanent residency status.
I think we should abolish the employer-initiated 457 visa status completely. This is not to say that the workers themselves could not apply for employment here on a temporary basis and go home when they choose — after all there are nearly a million Australians working overseas at any one time, “taking other people's jobs”.
All workers must have the right to work. Selling our labour in order to exist is all we have. Being treated as equals with access to laws and the right to organise ourselves in unions is fundamental to our human rights. Government policy that prevents some workers from working just because they are refugees or exposes workers in temporary employment to immediate deportation without notice, opens the way for super-exploitation.
Tolerating super-exploitation of vulnerable workers in Australia will eventually affect us all. By this I mean, having one section of workers in Australia forced into accepting lower wages and conditions ultimately forces down all wages and conditions.
Have you ever wondered why the US minimum wage is half that in Australia, or why they only get one or two weeks paid holidays per year?
To maintain true equality among workers we must all be allowed to work, including refugees, and we must all have access to permanent resident status if we choose. Anything less means workers will continue to be exposed to super-exploitation and we all lose out eventually in the race to the bottom.
[Tim Gooden is the secretary of the Geelong Trades Hall Council and member of the Socialist Alliance.]