OPINION: Rorting of Visas Undermines Workers

When I speak to workers about the challenges they face in the modern economy it’s sad to hear that some workers don’t feel supported by the companies that employ them.
Recently I co-hosted a roundtable with the Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Shayne Neumann in my electorate of Shortland. We met with worker representatives and heard how businesses are using 457 visa workers for jobs that could be filled by locals.

Companies that operate in Australia should employ Australians.

457 visas and other temporary skilled migrants should only be used after rigorous labour market testing. The inappropriate use of 457 visas undermines Australian workers at a time of intense changes globally. We also have seen some very serious cases of exploitation.

One example I was given was of nearly 40 Filipino welders on 457 visas who were forced to work 60-70 hours per week. They were sacked without notice in the middle of the night and were grossly underpaid. In fact, the construction union has recovered over one million dollars in underpaid wages to these workers.

It’s not the first time I’ve been told of unethical use of the 457 program. In December last year I received confidential figures revealing the number of local nursing graduates able to secure work in the public health system had fallen from 80 per cent to 50 per cent. 10,000 Australian nurses are looking for work at same time as over 3300 nurses came to Australia as 457 visas in the last three years.

To be clear, Labor does not oppose foreign workers coming here when there is a legitimate need. Our opponents paint our position as xenophobic and anti-competitive, yet they never consider that 457 visa holders are often underpaid and overworked by Australian standards; they’d just prefer a Gordon Gekko ‘let the market rip’ approach without thinking of the consequences to thousands of Australian workers and youth looking for work. This is at a time when wages are stagnant and company profits are soaring (set to continue if the Coalition gets their way and introduces a $50 billion tax cut for corporations).

The only consistency I’ve seen from the Turnbull Government is their myopic and out of touch approach; it’s obvious the 457 system is being rorted and the Coalition is content to let it continue. Labor has introduced tough legislation which will require employers to advertise locally and to genuinely try to fill jobs with Australian workers before recruitment from overseas is an option. The migrants will also be required to be paid the market rate of pay. Under this proposal, if businesses have significant numbers of temporary workers, they must have a plan for training locals too.
The alternative is continued exploitation of temporary skilled migrants and undermining of the wages and conditions of Australian workers.

If we are to combat the rise of right wing populists; a movement that offers plenty of blame but no solutions, we must give people confidence in our economic system.
We must have a system that shares the spoils of the economy in a fair and considered manner. Not a system that sets worker against worker, centred on a race to the bottom.

This opinion piece was published in the Newcastle Herald on Wednesday, 22nd March.

© 2013 Pat Conroy | Disclaimer