Work Slump stokes tensions in Visa scheme for workers

Fairfax Digital by Malcolm Knox; March 16, 2009

A RECORD number of 457 visa workers entering a contracting labour market is creating "highly combustible" conditions in regional Australia, a migration expert says.

Bob Kinnaird, a retired public servant and authority on the skilled migrant program, said the Federal Government "has not adjusted the program fast enough to take account of the speed with which things have changed in the labour market. You would have thought a Labor government would be more sensitive to labour market conditions."

Visa workers losing their Australian jobs are increasingly finding themselves in dire straits. Three Filipino boilermakers, Arnold Bao, Marlon Umayan and Jeffrey Almora, came to Perth late last year to work for a metal fabricator, Enerflex Australasia, expecting to be employed for up to four years. They undertook to pay a Filipino labour hire agent, DA Management, $10,000 each, withdrawn from their salaries over the period.

But in January the three men were told they were no longer needed at Enerflex. They were paid two weeks' severance pay, and have applied to the Department of Immigration for the 28 days' payment they believe they are entitled to under the 457 visa scheme. The department, they believe, has equivocated on pressing their former employer to pay its full liability as required by the scheme.

But beyond that, they are deeply in debt to the Filipino agent and with little hope of gaining new employment. All three men are supporting their wives and young children back in the Philippines.

"The situation is not looking good for us," Mr Bao said. "We are paying $300 a week to rent a shared house, and we have a 12-month lease. We have been looking for new jobs, or else we will be sent back to the Philippines with a debt that we don't know how we will pay back."

The ACTU and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union have argued that the 28 days retrenched visa workers have to find a new job or leave the country should be extended to 90 days.

The Filipino boilermakers are among a record 82,150 workers now in Australia under the scheme. Mr Kinnaird said that in January and February the Government had issued 8900 new 457 visas "at a time when full-time employment in Australia was contracting alarmingly".

The problem was exacerbated, he said, by the Government dropping a former requirement that sponsoring employers prove that they could not provide Australian workers for positions taken up by migrant workers.

"You could say in those last few months that madness has reigned."

"When employers are suddenly laying a lot of people off, that's a problem for the migrant workers," he said, "but it's also a problem for local workers. I have been hearing a lot of stories about local workers being laid off while the 457 workers are kept on, because the locals are seen as less pliable.

"The situation is tailor-made for 457 workers to accept below-minimum-wage conditions because they are absolutely desperate to stay here, and they have no bargaining power at all."

As a recent example of this, he pointed to another West Australian case in which Burmese 457 visa workers were kept on at a manufacturing firm while local workers were retrenched.

"And where redundancies come in," he said, "there's a glaring gap in the 457 scheme. It doesn't really know what to do regarding redundancies, because it grew during a time when that wasn't such a big issue."

A Victorian engineer, David Richards, wrote in The Age last month that he was involved with a number of cancelled mining and petrochemical projects in which "people are being laid off due to lack of work. Mostly they seem to be permanent Australian residents, with the 457 visa people still employed. My feeling is the 457 people should be the first to go, to protect local jobs."

Mr Kinnaird said another worrying scenario in Queensland and Western Australia would be "where retrenched mining workers return home to the country towns they came from, to find that the type of jobs they might be looking for are now being held by 457 visa workers".

This week the Government would publish updated figures on the number of 457 visas being issued, Mr Kinnaird said.

"If we don't see some kind of slowdown, the Government is going to have a real problem on its hands."

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