Australia should be doing more to prevent the exploitation of foreign workers who pay money to middlemen and then find themselves treated badly by unscrupulous employers, it is claimed. There are reports that workers on 457 visas from countries such as the Philippines are running up huge debts paying middlemen for visas and then end up working in Australia on poorly paid jobs.
According to Dave Oliver, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions the situation highlights the danger of what he described as 'an uncontrolled expansion' of the 457 visa programme. 'Workers on 457 visas, or other temporary visas, must be treated the same as their Australian counterparts, not be used as cheap labour or to drive down pay and conditions,' he said.
'Employers should commit to the local economy by investing in training and innovation that helps enrich Australia's workforce capacity. They should not be able to undercut local wages and conditions by exploiting people from other countries in vulnerable situations,' he explained. 'The 457 system is being used to exploit Filipino workers, who are required to pay huge sums to middlemen, often the equivalent of four years average wage in the Philippines, to get a 457 visa and a job in Australia,' he added.
He pointed out that reports that they are required to take out a loan at 45% interest to pay these middlemen should disturb everyone. 'These arrangements may not be illegal, but they are taking advantage of poor, vulnerable workers and should be condemned,' said Oliver. He also pointed out that 457 visa workers are reliant on their employer to maintain their migration status and this makes it difficult for them to speak up about exploitation or safety breaches.
'If they are also paying off a massive debt then they are left powerless. The union movement is concerned that 457 visas can be used to recruit compliant workers who are afraid to speak out about under-payment or other abuses,' explained Oliver. He added that the union movement had a strong record of supporting permanent skilled migration and accepted the need for 457 visas in some areas. 'However, we need to ensure that 457 visas are only available where companies can show they have tried to recruit local workers, and that the Immigration Department properly monitors employers who use 457 visas,' he said.
The number of workers who came to Australia on 457 visas had increased by 20% over the past 12 months. As of April 2013 there were 56,946 visas granted and the number of 457 trades and technician workers arriving has increased by 15.4% in a year.