Two cases of ruthless exploitation of Chinese guest workers have recently come to light in the printing industry, throwing the spotlight on the plight of the growing number of guest workers.
Victorian state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union's (AMWU) print division Jim Reid told Green Left Weekly that Melbourne company Aprint was the first printing company the union became aware of that had sacked an employee on a section 457 guest-worker visa (s457 visa).
There are four Chinese guest workers at Aprint. They paid $10,000 to an agent in Shanghai to find them a job in Australia. After they arrived, however, the Aprint boss claimed it had cost him $10,000 to bring each of the workers to this country, so he deducted "reimbursement" of $200 per week out of each worker's wage.
When one of the workers, Jack Zhang, had worked for Aprint for a year and the company had deducted all of the $10,000 from his wages he was told that the company wasn't happy with his work and he was sacked. "That's when Jack came to us", Reid said.
Zhang had outlaid more than $20,000 for the "privilege" of working in Australia — $10,000 upfront and $200 per week to his boss. After he was sacked, he was immediately replaced by another worker brought from China.
"When Jack contacted the union, he wasn't sure what a union was", Reid said. "Once we became aware of what happened, we organised a press release, and spoke to the immigration department, the Victorian Workplace Rights Advocate and the Office of Workplace Services. I understand that the OWS is now prosecuting Aprint for underpayment and the company faces substantial fines."
Reid said Zhang had worked 60 hours per week at Aprint for $752, just over $12 per hour. "Jack is a qualified tradesperson. He's worked in the printing industry nearly all his adult life. He was working beside Australian tradespeople who were earning $28 an hour. He was paid below the award and he wasn't paid any penalty rates, even when he worked on the weekend."
When Zhang was sacked he faced deportation for being unemployed. The AMWU found Zhang a job at another printing company, which took over sponsorship. "Jack's now working in a fully unionised shop so he's very happy. The AMWU also organised and paid for accommodation for Jack until he was able to get a wage at his new job", Reid explained.
Reid told GLW that the other Chinese guest workers at Aprint are being paid way below the trade rate. "I've met each of them. They're all really nice blokes who've come to Australia, like most migrants, looking for a better life for themselves and their families, and they've been ruthlessly exploited by disgusting employers."
Reid explained that "the big issue is why would an employer employ Australian workers at the going rate of $28 an hour if he can employ imported skilled labour for $12-$15 an hour. In the case of Aprint, this was nothing to do with a lack of skilled employees available locally. We are aware that at Aprint, Australian workers lost their jobs to make way for the Chinese migrants.
"No-one has any concerns with migrants coming into the country, particularly skilled migrants, but we do have an issue if they're coming in to displace Australian workers and are being ruthlessly exploited and paid under the going rates."
Reid said the AMWU became aware of the second case a couple of days after Zhang's story appeared in the Age newspaper. A Chinese man who spoke English rang the union about Zhihong Fu, who had been really badly treated by the company Lakeside Packaging.
Zhihong spoke no English, so Reid spoke to him through an interpreter. "Fu came to Australia after paying $27,000 for his visa", Reid said. "He sold his house in China and borrowed money from family and friends to pay the $27,000.
"Fu was told that he would be working as a maintenance supervisor, but when he arrived here he was given the most menial of jobs. Lakeside Packaging was using him as a labourer and a cleaner.
"One of Fu's jobs was laying electrical cabling. Fu has no English at all and here he was working with materials that require a licence to use.
"Fu was working on a ladder and it fell away. He fell five metres to the ground, bumped his head, broke two teeth and broke his right forearm. Fu's boss told him that he didn't need to worry about going to hospital but fortunately his workmates had more sense and took him to hospital.
"Fu's boss then pressured him to return to work. After a couple of days, Fu returned to work with his right hand — his dominant hand — in plaster. While using an electric drill with his left hand, because his right hand was in plaster, the drill kicked and broke his left arm.
"So now Fu had two arms in plaster but again the boss was pressuring him to come back to work. Fu was contacted by the agency in Shanghai, which told him he should get back to work and apologise to the boss for causing trouble.
Reid said that when Fu explained that the doctor had given him six weeks off work, the boss wrote to him telling him he would be sacked and deported back to China.
"So Fu was in Australia for less than a year, he's spent $27,000 on a visa, he's been worked like a dog for all of that time, he's broken two wrists and now he's being deported!", Reid said. "We contacted the media and the union's lawyers are making applications to the Equal Opportunity Commission and WorkCover, and an unlawful dismissal application in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. We've also found an employer who has offered Fu a job as soon as he is able to work again."
"But for the union, both Fu and Jack would have been left high and dry", Reid told GLW. "I can only imagine what these guys must have been going through, coming all the way from China with no local support base, no family, no friends and very little English. It must have been hellish."
In both cases, the companies made the workers sign Australian Workplace Agreements (individual contracts) that forbade them from joining a union or participating in political activity. The clause in Fu's contract stated: "Under no circumstances shall the employee participate in riots, strikes, political, union or radical religious activities."
Reid said that migrant workers, whether in Australia legally or illegally, "should not be treated poorly. If people haven't gone through the normal [migration] process, there's usually a reason. People may be fleeing oppressive regimes. They may be in fear of their lives or face political persecution. They may not be able to practice a particular religion. Some of them may be purely economic refugees and I find it very difficult to condemn someone who is looking for a better life for themselves and their family.
"The union is concerned about the s457 visas. They are meant to fill labour shortages, but that's not what is happening. People at Aprint were displaced from their jobs to make way for migrants on s457 visas, and companies in the printing industry are not finding it difficult to get tradespeople.
"If it was only about a skills shortage, why would employers be paying these workers less than half the Australian tradesperson's rate? Quite clearly, it is more about reducing wages and conditions. In the last 10 years, the number of s457 visas approved has gone from 24,000 to 70,000.
"Anyone coming to Australia, and especially if they're coming through a government scheme, should be treated exactly the same as other workers in Australia, not as cheap labour. If the government was fair dinkum, it would oversee the conditions under which these workers are employed after they arrive. Instead, the government takes a hands-off approach and these workers are left completely at the mercy of unscrupulous employers."
The AMWU argues that if there is a skills shortage, we should be training Australian kids, in the first instance, Reid explained. "We don't want a situation where anytime there is a skills shortage we simply import labour ... We know that the real unemployment rate in Australia is much higher than the official statistics. If it means training older workers whose jobs have been displaced by technological change then that should be done.
"After doing that, if there's still a skills shortage, we should bring in skilled migrants, provided they are paid the same rates and being treated exactly the same as people who are already employed in Australia."