Canberra 457 workers’ dispute shows how to fight for rights

A group of 457 migrant visa workers in Canberra have shown how to stand up against exploitation and demand equal rights.

The group of mostly Korean workers employed in construction walked off the job in late March and shut down their building site for a whole day. They forced their employer to pay proper wages and end unpaid overtime.

The dispute is an excellent example of unions organising 457 workers and fighting for their rights. The 457 workers have all joined the CFMEU, which secured an immediate one-off hardship payment for the workers, and pay at the basic award rate in the interim while it negotiates a proper agreement.

The union approach to the workers was quite different to that taken in many of the recent “Aussie jobs” rallies around the 457 visa issue. There were no “stop 457 visa” slogans or calls for jobs for “locals” or “Aussies”.

Canberra 457 workers have shown how to fight exploitation

Instead the union took up the issue of the 457 workers’ exploitation, and is demanding they have the same pay and same rights as local workers.

The group of about 30 workers approached the union after they were not paid by their employer, K.P. Painting Pty Ltd, for up to six weeks. They were also expected to work unpaid overtime on shifts of up to 14 hours and paid below the minimum wage.

One worker, Taehyoung Jo, told the media he was forced to work 55 hours a week despite being paid for only 38 hours. The workers appear not to have received other legal entitlements including sick pay, annual leave and superannuation.

The former contract manager at the company, John Phillips, told the Canberra Times, “They get asked to work from 6.20am until whatever in the afternoon but [in] the joinery section, they might be working there until 10 o’clock at night with half an hour lunch break. If told to go home, they’d say ‘we can’t, because the boss will be angry’.”

Their treatment was completely illegal, yet the company was able to get away with it due to the vulnerable position of 457 visa workers. They face deportation if their employer sacks them and they cannot find another employer to sponsor them within 28 days.

The Canberra dispute shows that there clearly are bosses who want to use 457 visas to cut pay and drive down conditions. But the way to fight this is to organise the workers into the unions, as the CFMEU in Canberra has done, and fight to make sure they are paid decent wages.

Union anti-457 campaign

Sadly, the unions are continuing with the campaign against workers on 457 visas that can only undermine unity in the fight for rights and against job losses.

After Holden cut 500 jobs (400 in Adelaide and 100 in Melbourne) the South Australian CFMEU called a demonstration in Adelaide—but not demanding to save the Holden jobs, instead to demand Australian-made content in local projects and prioritising “local workers over importing exploitable workers from overseas.”

Unions will also show the “Lets Spread it Around” campaign advertisements during the car race Showdown XXXIV. Another rally was held in Gladstone to launch the “Lets Spread it Around” campaign there, with “local jobs for local workers” as the first demand.

But the sackings at Holden make it obvious who is the threat to jobs—the manufacturing bosses, not “workers from overseas”.

Holden received $50 million in government subsidies from Labor before taking the axe to jobs. Predictably, Gillard has done nothing about the job losses. It is even more proof that her attack on foreign workers was about racist dogwhistling, not a sudden concern about unemployment.

The more the unions support campaigns against 457 visa workers coming here, the less likely 457 visa workers are to see the unions as allies as they did in Canberra. This would be a tragic outcome that risks making it easier for bosses to get away with exploiting them.

Slogans and rallies that demand an end to 457 visas or target these workers for unemployment are not going to build the united fight we need to win rights and permanent residency for 457 workers, or to fight unemployment.

We need to unite all workers, whether local or migrant, to fight for jobs, wages and conditions.

James Supple


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