Labor backbencher Doug Cameron has launched a scathing attack on the Fair Work Ombudsman for her punishment of a Taiwanese company that perpetrated what he described as “one of the most egregious breaches of workplace law that I have seen for many years”.
In January, Chia Tung Development Corporation was exposed by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) for underpaying Filipino and Chinese workers on short term skilled migration visas by more than $800,000.
Investigations by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and Fair Work have since provided details of the shocking exploitation: Employed to install animal feed mills, the workers found themselves being treated like animals themselves.
A group of 43 workers, 13 from China and 30 from the Philippines, were underpaid by $873,000. The Chinese workers saw no pay for months, illegal deductions of their pay were rife, and the accommodation Chia Tung provided was cramped and squalid.
At one of three sites where Chia Tung employees worked, in Nowra, 30 workers were living in a five-bedroom house with one toilet. When the abuse was uncovered, some workers had their employment illegally terminated in what the National Secretary of the CFMEU said “looks like an attempt to get them out of the country before the exploitation was discovered”.
An enforcement order the Fair Work Ombudsman arranged with Chia Tung will force the company to repay those workers, some of whom were owed more than $30,000. In last week’s Senate Estimates hearings, Senator Cameron emphasised that the enforcement order actually doesn’t punish Chia Tung and argued a prosecution should have been launched.
“You can come into this country, you can rip workers off to the tune of well over three quarters of a million dollars, you can treat them abominably in terms of their conditions, you can have them surviving on $15 a day: All they get is $10,000 to the Philippine community and it is hunky-dory,” he said.
But the Deputy Fair Work Ombudsman, Michael Campbell, said the enforcement undertaking was the best response to the exploitation which he had spoken about in detail two months earlier.
Working six days a week, for between nine and 11 hours a day, 30 employees from the Philippines received roughly a third of the pay they were promised.
“Chia Tung promised the Filipino workers about $27 an hour, but subsequently unlawfully deducted thousands of dollars in ‘fees’ from their wages,” Campbell said. In the end, they were receiving an hourly rate of just $9.
For the 13 Chinese workers, even more vulnerable because few of them spoke any English, the abuse was worse.
“The Fair Work Ombudsman found that the Chinese employees were promised about $10 an hour, but were paid nothing at all for three months work,” Campbell said.
“All they got was a $15 a day “food allowance”.
According to the CFMEU, whose delegates did much of the legwork to expose Chia Tung, it’s not an isolated case for foreign workers on 457 visas.
“We’ve always put the view to successive governments that this is a regular occurrence, not a one off,” National Secretary Michael O’Connor told New Matilda at the time.
“Workers under these visa arrangements are vulnerable because they’re desperate to keep their job and are worried about being kicked out of the country.”
A strong supporter of the CFMEU, Cameron slammed the Fair Work Ombudsman on Tuesday for not prosecuting, which he suggested would send a weaker signal to other employers.
“This decision not to prosecute what I believe is one of the most egregious breaches of workplace law that I have seen for many years, how did you come to that decision?” he asked.
Campbell responded by arguing that Chia Tung had cooperated after it was exposed and “engaged immediately with us, was prepared to make admissions and paid back the money reasonably promptly”.
“So we agreed with them to enter into an enforceable undertaking in order to put that $873,000 back into the hands of the workers reasonably quickly, within two months.
“A litigation would have taken much longer, maybe 12 months.”
Chia Tung has also agreed to engage an external accountant to conduct future audits, implement a training program for directors and other responsible people and make written apologies in media, Campbell said.
“In addition to all of that, Chia Tung will make a donation of $10,000 to the Philippine Australian Community Services Incorporated, who will put that money towards broader workplace relations compliance.
“As an alternative to sinking a bunch of dollars into litigation, I think, [it]is a good outcome.”
In a lengthy and heated exchange, Cameron fired back: “You are saying that you got an undertaking that provided the money to those workers. That was their legal obligation. There were no penalty provisions in this?”
“What do you need to do to a worker in this country for the Fair Work Ombudsman to prosecute a company?”
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