Dark side of guest labour

457 Visas are loose and open to abuse

The use of temporary skilled migration, especially the use of the so-called 457 Visa, has become a hot public issue, with frequent media expos`s of workplace exploitation. This darker side is also found in nursing but with a chronic labour shortage these visas also fill a need. The Lamp looks at the issues.

Unions have voiced concerns that the federal government’s handling of its temporary worker visa program is creating a tier of second-class workers in Australia who have no rights and are vulnerable to being underpaid, mistreated and abused.

In one case, unions exposed unsafe and exploitative working conditions for around 50 Chinese workers at Wetherill Park in western Sydney. The workers were building a $60 million tissue-paper mill.

They used equipment that did not meet safety specifications, they did not have the appropriate licences to operate vehicles and were allowed to carry out dangerous tasks. One man was seen welding a pipe he was tied to while swaying high in the air dangling from a crane.

Union concerns are backed by researchers at the University of Western Sydney’s Centre for Innovation and Industry Studies, who have published a highly critical report of the temporary skilled migration system. Among its concerns are:

  • the government is using the scheme to push down local wages
  • the principle of equal work for equal pay will be undermined
  • overseas temporary workers are in a difficult position in the event of industrial conflict between employers on whom they are completely dependent
  • restrictions on the movement of 457 Visa holders is dangerously close to ‘bonded labour’.

The report details the dramatic rise in the use of the visas.

40,000 people are expected to be granted 457 Visas this year, up 43% on 28,000 visas last year and a 66% increase on 2003-04. There are now 75,000 people in Australia working on these visas.

Although employers must pay award rates or set minimum wages of between $41,000 and $51,000 per year, depending on location and skill level, they are not obliged to pay Australian market rates and they no longer have to advertise locally before they recruit overseas.

‘The program should be overhauled to force employers to seek Australian labour before looking offshore, and to pay market rates,’ said Labor’s immigration spokesperson Tony Burke.

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone has admitted that importing foreign workers helps keep wages down. She has publicly defended the foreign guest worker scheme saying it stopped unions from pushing excessive wage demands.

‘Some parties are opposed to the recruitment drive because it opens up the industry to other pools of employees, which undermines the unions’ ability to exploit high wages amid the skills shortage,’ she told the West Australian.

But there are divisions within the federal government over the use of overseas labour.

Liberal Alby Schultz (Hume) has questioned why meatworkers are being brought in on temporary visas when skilled Australians are out of work, while National Party whip Kay Hull wants the scheme extended to cover fruit picking.

What is a 457 visa?

The 457 Visa scheme was originally designed to bring foreign executives into the country for short stints in management. It was then expanded for employers who could not find local workers with specific skills. The criteria have now been relaxed so that even truck drivers, factory workers and kitchen hands are now brought in using the visas.

  • visas can last up to 4 years
  • there is no longer a need for labour market testing or to demonstrate the activity is key to the business
  • there is no longer a requirement for employers to demonstrate a training benefit to Australian workers
  • there is no need to have credentials vetted by Australian accrediting authorities
  • there is no requirement for companies who sponsor workers to have a legal presence in Australia.