The Guardian 5 September, 2007

Deadly 457 visas

Three guest workers on the Howard Government’s Section 457 visas have been killed in regional Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia while toiling in atrocious conditions described by an immigration expert as being like "slavery". Two were killed in June and the other in March.

Pedro Balading from the Philippines was thrown from the back of a utility on a NT cattle station and killed. Guo Jian Dong from China was crushed to death while tree felling in Queensland. Wilfredo Navales was crushed to death in a stoneworks north of Perth in March.

An indication of the conditions the workers have thrust upon them is the case of the company which killed Mr Guo, NK Collins, where three workers currently live in a caravan at a timber mill next the Mitchell town garbage dump in Queensland. They speak no English and have to push a wheelbarrow three kilometres into to town when buying food.

"The specific instances are akin to slavery", said immigration expert Bob Birrell at Monash University. "That derives from the fact that these people are cowed into believing that if they move away from their contract they will have to go home. Employees are exploiting their power in the relationship and [the workers] feel they have lost their rights." The violations of their rights include: accommodation and meal expenses wrongly deducted directly from workers’ wages; unpaid overtime; workers employed in locations not stated in their visa; safety standards ignored; workers employed in conditions that affect the local workforce.

John Sutton from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) said the 457 visa workers are often forced to work in "appalling conditions". He said they do not feel they have a right to complain. "In many instances these people are in slave-like conditions, they’re living in unacceptable living quarters, many of them cramped up together.

"There’s everything from workers who are brought in to do skilled work who are subsequently put out to do unskilled, heavy manual work that they are not trained for and sometimes is very unsafe."

Pedro Balading was a univer­sity-trained farm supervisor. Guo Jian Dong had never used a chainsaw before. Wilfredo Navales was a specialist stonemason who was put to work as a labourer.

They worked 10-11 hours most days but got paid for eight. They had $100 per week taken out for accommodation and almost $90 for meals.

In another aspect of the exploitative opportunities 457 visas offer employers, in July the CFMEU received complaints from construction workers in central Queensland that a major construction company had threatened to replace them with 457 visa workers unless they signed AWAs that strip pay and conditions.

John Holland Pty Ltd was constructing transmission lines and towers in Pioneer Valley near Mackay in Queensland. The company was using their own employees, a local sub-contractor and 10 Filipino 457 visa workers on AWAs on the job. Another 50 Filipino workers are expected to join the next stage of the project between Nebo and Broadsound.

Dave Noonan, National Secretary of the Construction Division of the CFMEU, said: "The Australian workers are currently paid the same conditions as the EBA, which means they get about $1,800 for a 46 hour week. The Filipino workers get about $1,022 for the same work, with no overtime or penalty rates.

"The Australians are getting about $130 a week in superannuation; the Filipinos are only getting about $92 a week. What’s worse, some of the Filipino workers claim they were forced to sign AWAs they were only given one hour to read. They also allege that they had to pay one month’s salary to a middleman in Manila to get these jobs."

He said that now John Holland was trying to force the Australian workers to sign AWAs, with similar pay and conditions to the Filipino workers, or risk being made redundant before the next stage of the project.

"This is a classic example of a major Australian company using John Howard’s laws to bring in overseas workers, force them to sign AWAs, pay them less than what Australian workers are worth and use that to force down the pay and conditions of Australian workers."

The Australian workers complained to the Workplace Ombudsman and were interviewed by investigators, but heard nothing back. They then contacted the CFMEU and asked the union to take up the case on their behalf.

The union is demanding John Holland rule out any cuts to wages and conditions for the local workers. The union also says the Filipino workers should be provided with equal wages and conditions for equal work. There should be no forced redundancies for local workers while overseas workers are engaged on temporary work visas.

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