In 2005, a colleague from another union was called one afternoon by a 457 visa worker who was in the toilet of Perth’s international airport. He had been taken there by two men working for his employer and was about to be deported.
The worker had been talking to the union about pay and conditions on the job and as soon as the employer got wind of it, they took him to his flat, told him to pack his bags and took him to the airport. The union organiser made a mad dash for the airport, where he made a fuss and was able to intervene and stop the worker from being deported.
I tell this story because in recent days there have been articles and opinion pieces criticising the unions for being dinosaurs and xenophobes, and that our campaign against the rise in 457 visas is pandering to and igniting racist tendencies in the Australian working class.
It was the unions who pushed for legislative change after the election of the Rudd Labor Government to give more rights to 457 visa workers because we were the ones they turned to for help in the face of widespread exploitation. We saw terrible instances of people working while seriously injured and ill, of injured workers being deported back to Korea or the Philippines burdened with having to meet their own medical expenses.
It is still the unions to whom these workers turn in instances of underpayment or unfair treatment — often with the risk of losing their job or deportation hanging over them. Our own union, the CFMEU, has assisted hundreds of 457 visa workers, including tilers from Korea who are owed up to $5 million.
Those who argue that we are stuck in the past and not embracing a globalised workforce — which is presented benignly as people moving from one place to another with ease — are clearly refusing to see the negative repercussions of the guest worker phenomenon. Big business are the winners of this system. The losers are the guest workers themselves, who have no bargaining power, and the permanent workforce who are shut out of jobs.
It is naïve in the extreme to deny that a low skilled or semi skilled worker from an underdeveloped country in Australia at the mercy of their employer does not favour business. They are compliant, less likely to complain about safety, less aware of their rights and more likely to accept a lower rate of pay. How else do you explain the employment of 457 visa workers in Werribee, in the heart of suburban Melbourne, where there are large numbers of permanent workers with the exact same skills looking for jobs?
We constantly hear from business that they struggle to fill positions, that people are not prepared to travel to remote regions, yet we are being told by our members that they apply for these jobs and are turned down.
In the construction industry, there has been a 6.5 per cent decline in employment of permanent workers in Australia, while at the same time, the number of 457 visa workers has risen by 38 per cent. Talkback radio is jammed with mothers and fathers talking about the struggle of securing an apprenticeship for their children in order for them to find gainful employment.
There is no onus on employers to advertise locally, to train apprentices or employ permanent workers. The result is a downgrading of pay and conditions that unions have fought for over decades.
In New Matilda last week, Henry Sherrell wrote that only a small number of employers abuse the 457 visa system. It would be interesting to know how he reaches such a conclusion since the evidence to support this claim does not exist, because no data is collected by the government.
The small number of employers we do know about is through the courage of some workers who are prepared to step forward and speak out. We know there are many instances of not knowing the extent of other kinds of abuse in our society when victims have little or no power and their abusers have the upper hand.
If the CFMEU is against the rorting of the 457 system by employers, it is not because we are stuck in the past. It is because we are in the business of defending and protecting workers’ rights. It is because we want workers to reap the benefits of a boom that shouldn’t be about making excessively wealthy people even wealthier at the expense of workers. That’s why we exist.
And as for pandering to the xenophobes, anyone who cares to take a close look at our union will see that we are made up of people who hail from all over the world. Our officials, delegates and members include migrants and children of migrants. As an organiser in Melbourne in the 1980s and 1990s I worked with migrants from Greece, Chile and Cambodia, among others, who as permanent residents were able to stand up for their rights, fight for better safety and strive to make the industry one which they could work in with dignity. They did this for themselves and for future generations.
At the end of last year, I attended a graduation at the union training centre in Melbourne of asylum seekers who we trained in construction skills to enable them to find work in the industry. And in Perth last week at our Local jobs, Local Content rally, I met three wall and floor tilers, members of our union, who came to Australia as refugees from Afghanistan. They were there because they understand the importance of job security.
When I stand up and fight against the 457 visa rorts, I know all of these workers are standing right next to me.
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