Why overseas workers deserve rights – not 457 visas

Issue 
A rally in Perth defends migrant workers' rights

The federal government said on February 23 it would introduce several changes to the 457 temporary visa program, to take effect from July. The proposals were applauded by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and criticised by big business.

The 457 visa system is a highly exploitative, insecure and discriminatory visa system, originally introduced under the former John Howard government. Once elected, the ALP kept the visa class in place as a favour to big business, tinkering with it rather than abolishing it in favour of strengthening permanent skilled migration.

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, challenged the government's decision, asking for proof that the scheme needed reform. Innes Willox, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group said that the changes will make it tougher for employers.

The ACTU maintains that the 457 visa program is being abused by some employers to drive down pay and conditions and is being over-used “at the expense of local workers”. ACTU secretary, Dave Oliver said on February 23 that the ACTU does not support 457 visas, and has “serious questions about the number being granted in recent years, given the slowdown in the Australian economy, particularly in the construction sector.”

The ACTU has criticised the fact that labour market testing, or preferential employment, which was abolished in 2009, has not been reintroduced. It was previously necessary for employers to advertise a position prominently in national and local newspapers and trade magazines to prove that “no suitably qualified Australians” could be found for a position.

English language skill requirements for workers earning less than $92,000 will now be made stricter. Apparently this will “benefit visa holders” who want to apply for permanent residence later on. Missing is any requirement for employers to provide English language training or translator support for temporary overseas workers or other migrants.

Weak record

Enhanced regulatory powers will be introduced, but the government’s track record for successful prosecutions against unscrupulous employers has been weak.

Businesses employing 457 visa holders will have an obligation to train non-overseas workers and apprentices at the same time as they sponsor overseas workers, but this hardly balances out such an exploitative system.

The government is also moving to outlaw the practice of “on-hiring” overseas workers to unrelated employers.

Unions have raised concerns about the exploitation experienced by 457 visa holders. However a more common complaint is that they threaten “Aussie” jobs. This has led to demands to lower the number of visas issued, especially given the jobs crisis in manufacturing and the slow down in the resources sector.

Divide and rule

Many unions have done great work in organising 457 visa holders into unions and fighting for their employment rights. However, this is undermined if unions are calling for the tightening up of restrictions on 457 visas at the same time, or restricting skilled migration and promoting campaigns of “Aussie” jobs for “Aussie” workers.

In times of economic insecurity, there are real dangers that growing unemployment could lead to a revival of anti-migrant and racist scapegoating.

Greedy corporate fat cats, particularly in the mining sector, backed by neoliberal governments at state and federal level, are to blame for the jobs crisis in building and manufacturing. It is this same ruling class that seeks to divide and rule workers for its own benefit, using racism as its weapon of choice.

Job prospects in the construction industry in Victoria are grim and looking grimmer. The Age has reported 12,000 construction jobs have been lost in the state and thousands more are at risk as big infrastructure jobs such as the Wonthaggi desalination plant come to an end.

The recent protest and blockade by unemployed workers in the Melbourne suburb of Werribee rose out of this crisis. The protest was organised by a group of unemployed workers, who were desperate for jobs on the City West Water site. They discovered that the contractor had hired overseas workers from the Philippines on 457 visas, despite being aware that there were locally based skilled workers desperate for work.

These unemployed workers (and the thousands of others already out of work in the industry) have a legitimate need for jobs, and this can't be ignored. But it is not the workers on 457 visas who are the problem, as the Werribee workers were at pains to point out.

Under the 457 visa system many companies get away with paying inferior wages and offering inferior conditions to workers. Rather than sponsor overseas workers for permanent jobs and residency, employers opt to bring workers in temporarily, exploit them to the hilt, intimidate them with threats of deportation, ensure they remain un-unionised and then cast them off when the work runs out.

It is not just blue-collar sectors where this is happening. It has also become commonplace in the education and services sectors.

In Australia, governments are in the process of destroying the TAFE sector, have gutted training and apprenticeship schemes, removed compulsory apprentice ratios from awards, kept trainee and apprenticeship wages shamefully low, and allowed companies to drop apprenticeship schemes. The public utilities that used to provide tradespeople for the whole economy have been privatised. Now the bosses claim there is a skills crisis. They all want a skilled workforce, but none of them want to pay for it.

Race to the bottom

Neoliberal globalisation has accelerated a race to the bottom. In so-called high wage countries like Australia, this means that workers' conditions are undermined and jobs are lost in entire sectors, as companies shift to where labour is cheapest.

In sections of the developing world, such as the Philippines, globalisation has meant that when workers have organised successfully for higher wages and better conditions, companies have responded by packing up and shifting elsewhere, forcing people out of work, and leading thousands to travel overseas for jobs.

There is a need for a solution to the jobs crisis in the building and manufacturing industries that can deal with the slow down in the resources sector. But we cannot leave it to the market to solve the crisis.

The solution does not lie in a call to protectionism or a call to tighten immigration. What is needed is a call for internationalism.

In practice this means that the interests of workers have to extend beyond Australia’s borders. In Australia it means demanding an end to the super exploitation of temporary migrant and guest workers and demanding that their wages and conditions be equal to those of local workers, and that they enjoy full residency and citizenship rights, if they want them.

It also means being in solidarity with the struggles of workers overseas for better wages and conditions.

There is no limit to how low the bosses would sink in their pursuit of profit. Capitalism drives inhumane practices, which know no borders, placing profit ahead of workers wages, safety and rights — whether they live in Australia or have come here to live and work from overseas.

Rather than seeking a tightening of the 457 visa regulations, we should do away with them once and for all, in favour of a program of permanent skilled migration. To ensure that unemployed skilled workers have access to sustainable jobs at award conditions or higher, we need a radical alternative to the irrational, market-driven economy.

The climate emergency presents a clear need for a huge public program of manufacturing for renewable energy and building the public infrastructure needed to develop this sector.

There is a need for more water catchments and waterways infrastructure in light of the flooding crisis, and new infrastructure to deal with other severe weather events.

A large program of public housing and public transport infrastructure development across our big cities and linking regional centres would create millions of jobs in construction, manufacturing and maintenance, for example.

This all can't be left to the profits-first agenda of private corporations, and must be publicly run and community controlled.

Australian workers experience some of the highest rates of unpaid overtime in the OECD. Campaigners need to advocate spreading jobs around through a renewed fight for a shorter working week.

Solutions

In the face of spreading privatisation, to save jobs and create more, we must defend and expand the public sector, nationalise and put under community control those sectors of the economy that have been privatised, and take back control of the mining and the banking sectors.

Socialist Alliance says:
• Scrap the 457 visa class in favour of full, permanent residency and industrial rights for migrant workers.
• Create jobs in the construction and manufacturing sectors via a huge program of public works to support the renewable energy industry.
• A large program of public housing and public transport infrastructure development will create jobs, develop skills and deliver the right to housing and to efficient, sustainable transport.
• Renew the call for a shorter working week without loss of pay — spread the work around, and create more jobs.
• Legislate for apprenticeship ratios on employers with government contracts and on big
• Nationalise the mining, banking and energy sectors under community control, to create jobs, to lower the cost of our essential services and to rapidly transition to a 100% renewable energy future.

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