Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Happy ending in SA 457 case – risky system remains

The case of the nine Filipino painters ripped off by painting contractor Paint Professionals in Adelaide has ended well overall. The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Engineering Union (CFMEU) in South Australia has found the men alternative employment and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIC) has withdrawn the company’s authorisation to sponsor 457 visa-holding workers for three years. The company could be fined over the scandal and its director could face up to 10 years imprisonment. Unfortunately, while the workers have had their lives turned upside-down, the company is carrying on with business as usual and the 457 visa system that invites abuse of foreign workers remains in place.

The Filipinos came to the notice of local workers on an Adelaide construction site last month. They were quiet and kept to themselves. They weren’t aware of safety issues on the job. When their circumstances were investigated it was found that the men were owed back-pay of around $150,000. The nine of them were being charged between $250 and $350 each to live in the same suburban house. One of the men was paying the rent even though he was living elsewhere with his sister.

The workers were brought to Australia as painters but two of them were computer technicians, another was a carpenter and another a plasterer. They were promised $43,000 a year for working a standard 38 hour week. At times they were working up to 70 hours a week for no extra pay and not in the jobs they’d been promised when they were recruited in the Philippines.

The workers had been told to stay away from the union and that local workers did not appreciate their working on local sites. However, local workers, the CFMEU and the migrant community have been very generous in their support. SA State Secretary of the CFMEU’s Construction and General Division, Martin O’Malley, has also praised the Immigration Department officers involved in the case for their thoroughness and assistance. In this instance the Department was not the problem; it was the wide scope for abuse of the 457 system under the current legislation. It was one of Howard’s gifts to shady employers.

The CFMEU is opposed the 457 “guest worker” program. “The policy in our union, and we’d encourage it in any union, is if they want to bring people over to work in Australia they have to be given the opportunity to live in Australia,” Martin O’Malley told The Guardian. “This thing about being able to come over for two years or four years is just a load of bloody rubbish. That’s just a recipe for disaster and exploitation. If people are given the opportunity, they’re brought over here, they’ve got the skills and they want to work here they should be given the opportunity then to stay here,” he said.


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