Author’s note : This is the third and final installment of a three-part report on the Australian 457 visa program. The first two parts are here and here, as published in Malaya. This third and last part has not been published.
By ANTHONY IAN CRUZ
Dec. 10, 2007
“Revolting, absolutely revolting,” was how Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd described in August the reports of mounting cases of abuse against migrant workers, including Filipinos, under Australia’s temporary work visa or 457 program.
Rudd, who will soon become prime minister after his Labor Party won a landslide in the Nov. 24 federal elections, has vowed to institute reforms, including strict monitoring on employer compliance of 457 requirements.
This is welcome news to the Australia Metal Workers Union (AMWU), the Australia chapter of OFW group Migrante International, the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) and OFWs themselves who have started to take steps in addressing the abuses under the 457 visa scheme.
Last month, a Filipino Metalworkers group was formed within AMWU in the city of Perth with the aim of clinching union protection for their ranks.
“Of 700 OFW metal tradesmen in Perth, the AMWU has recruited 218 as members in only 10 months in 31 enterprises including those in fabrication, heavy engineering, plastic manufacturing, shipbuilding and factory maintenance,” said Migrante-Australia’s Anibeth Desierto.
Desierto says that the formation of a Filipino workers union group in Perth was “a first of its kind” and “a milestone” for the history of labor activism in Down Under.
AMWU’s Joel Ashpar was impressed by OFW union-organizing efforts: “I congratulate the guys (OFWs) for their courage in forming the Filipino Metalworkers – they are working together for strength as there’s no protection for temporary visa holders in Australia except among the workers themselves.”
In turn, Ashpar said that AMWU has made it possible for a number of 457 visa holders to find new employment and has negotiated with other employers better treatment for unionized 457 visa holders.
Also voicing out concern for distressed OFWs and other 457 visa holders are the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), Electrical Trades Union (ETU), Kwiniha-Rockingham Districts Filipino-Australian Association, and various expatriate Filipino communities.
Earlier this year, AMWU invited KMU chair Elmer Labog to Australia to speak with the OFWs, to enjoin them to know and assert their rights and to invite them to join unions.
AMWU has also launched workers’ education efforts to inform OFWs and migrant workers from other countries about their rights under Australian labor laws, and even coordinated with KMU on putting out advertisements in Philippine newspapers about the 457 visa program.
Writing for Bulatlat.com, Desierto said that “serious cases of maltreatment and abuse of OFWs in their worksites referred to the AMWU by Migrante have resulted in at least one case of court prosecution of the offending employer whose Filipino workers were recruited through the 457 visa scheme.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada has also called on the Arroyo government to negotiate an agreement with Australia to protect OFWs.
Estrada said the agreement should be forged between the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration and the Australian Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA).
But Estrada, who met with Australian Ambassador Tony Hely on the 457 issue, explained that “many of the complaints raised by Filipino workers related to inaccurate or misleading information provided by recruitment agents here in the Philippines, and to repayment of loans taken out here in Manila prior to travel to Australia. These are matters for the Philippine government to address.”
Following the death of OFW Pedro Balading, who fell off a trailer speeding through the outback, the Philippine government reportedly wrote to Australian government demanding protection for OFWs under the 457 visa scheme.
In an interview with a Sydney newspaper, Philippine vice consul Alexander Go sought a mechanism to allow employees to freely air their concerns about employment conditions, and even change jobs, without the threat of losing their visas.
Disturbed by reports of abuse against temporary workers from abroad, Bishop Philip Aspinall, the leader of the Anglican Church in Australia, said that “Australia has an obligation to ensure all workers are protected against any form of exploitation and if these reports are accurate, then the authorities must act swiftly to prevent any further injuries or deaths to migrant workers.”
Australia’s Human Rights Commission has also called for mandatory information and awareness campaign to educate 457 visa holders of their rights, and suggested unannounced monitoring visits to their workplaces.
But the outgoing conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard, which introduced the 457 visa in 1994 among its “labor flexibility” measures, has for a time refused to acknowledge the cases
Australia’s immigration officials have also downplayed the problem, claiming that only a small number of employers are exploiting the 457 visa scheme.
DIMIA has claimed that “comprehensive measures are in place to ensure integrity of the 457 visa program. All 457 visa applicants must be sponsored by an approved employer. The employer’s right to sponsor overseas workers can be cancelled if the employer does not comply with strict undertakings. The department monitors all business sponsors and visits approximately 25 percent of workplaces.”
But according to the Australian Council of Trade Unions “official figures that were recently submitted to a Senate inquiry by the government shows that 500 cases of alleged exploitation of temporary visa workers have been investigated this year but around half or 232 of the investigations have not yet been completed.”
Positive change may soon come under Rudd, the new prime minister buoyed to power by workers anger over Howard’s “labor flexibility” schemes.
In a press conference last August, Rudd expressed shock over the reports of abuses and vowed to institute reforms in the 457 scheme.
“The reports, if accurate, are revolting, absolutely revolting. There is a place in this country for 457s, we talked about that before. We’ve got to now look very carefully at the effective implementation and monitoring of the 457 system,” said Rudd, stressing that “457s are a part of the way in which this country has been managing its labor force needs, in part because there’s been no effective skills strategy in this country for more than a decade.” ###