Not surprisingly, the Coalition’s “independent” inquiry into 457 visas has recommended a number of changes all designed to make it easier for bosses to work the 457 system.
The government has already lifted the cap introduced by Labor in 2013, so employers will again be able to hire an unlimited number of 457 workers regardless of the numbers they originally applied for.
The inquiry’s recommendations include relaxing English language requirements and removing any requirement for local labour market testing to advertise amongst local workers for six months before employing migrant workers.
Local market testing has never actually been systematic in any case—Immigration Department statistics say that market testing only applied to a third of 457 visas issued. In 2013, over half of the 457 visas were granted to migrant workers and others already in Australia.
The government would like maximum deregulation to let employers pick and choose who they employ on the most favourable terms for themselves. It is already too easy for 457 workers to be exploited because they face deportation if they lose their sponsored job.
The answer to the threat of exploitation is to welcome 457 visa workers into the unions; to fight attempts to divide local and migrant workers; to fight for permanent residency for migrant workers and defend all workers’ conditions with stronger union organisation.
The only recommendation accepted so far by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison is to relax the English language requirements.
But already we are seeing responses from the trade unions, and Labor politicians that repeat the mistakes of the past, portraying the issue in nationalist terms about prioritising local workers over migrant workers.
ACTU president Ged Kearney and shadow Minister Richard Marles have both opposed lowering English language levels for 457s. But there is a thinly veiled racism behind the argument. Richard Marles argued that plans to reduce English language requirements could harm workplace safety and leave overseas workers “at risk of being exploited by dodgy employers” calling it “extremely alarming”.
Ged Kearney has even suggested that 457 workers could be safety risks, saying, “If workers can’t read safety standards and procedures then their lives and their colleague’s lives are being put at risk.”
But the answer to fighting exploitation is not to keep migrant workers out or to pitch local and migrant workers against each other. If there are safety risks at work it is because greedy bosses cut corners, not because of English standards.
The Australian manufacturing industry was built with hundreds of thousands of workers who migrated here without English. The unions need to insist that health and safety rules are translated into different languages; that there are English language lessons available and that both foreign and local workers are properly trained (with translators as needed) on the job.
These changes come on top of a proposal to grant some areas new designated area migration agreements (DAMA). These would apply in specific areas with labour shortages like Darwin where the Ichthys gas project is pulling labour from local businesses. Employers would be allowed to pay workers on 457 visas 10 per cent below the current minimum allowable wage of $53,900.
Another provision allows an employer to apply to pay a migrant worker less than the person who vacated a job, although not below the award wage. Clearly, this could leave migrant workers being paid significantly less than the going rate.
The answer to Abbott and the bosses “divide and rule” tactics is a united fight for the same conditions to apply for all. Organising 457 workers is possible. Last year a group of Korean 457 workers at K.P. Painting Pty Ltd were underpaid by hundreds of dollars per week, forced to work unpaid overtime and denied other legal entitlements. The workers walked off the job with the support of the CFMEU and shut down their building site for a day. They forced their employer to pay proper wages and end unpaid overtime.
Demands at recent union protests of “stop 457 visas” and “Aussie jobs for Aussie workers” only serve to alienate and isolate migrant workers. Twenty-seven per cent of the Australian population was born overseas. We can’t build strong unions with a campaign that alienates such a large part of the workforce.
Nationalist slogans play into the bosses’ hands. It is Abbott and the bosses who are causing job losses, not migrant workers—the Queensland government has cut 5000 health workers’ jobs since 2012, Australia Post is cutting 900 jobs and Arnott’s in South Australia has recently cut 120 jobs.
Winning the argument to welcome 457 and migrant workers is critical to rebuilding unions with the power to fight Abbott and the bosses’ agenda.
By Feiyi Zhang