Temporary migration in Australia: a cautionary tale
Australia is known as a settler nation (although the Australian unions are careful to acknowledge their debt to the people who cared for the land before Europeans arrived.) But more recently, what started as a way to plug short-term recruitment and skills gaps has seen the settler nation become home to an army if temporary guests. And they’re not being treated like guests should be. Sound familiar?
In Australia, the 457 visa allows employers to bring in workers to fill particular gaps for a limited period of time. The workers are only allowed to stay in Australia while they are in the job they came to do, and that gives the employer huge power over them. As Dave Noonan, national secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, the CFMEU, explains:
“It places workers in inherently vulnerable circumstances and means that often their tenure in the country is tied to their continued employment. This gives employers enormous power and sadly we often see that power being exploited.”
Temporary migrant workers have reported massive underpayment of the wages they were promised, huge deductions, overcrowded housing and worse. They often don’t know their rights, and have few avenues – especially because of the way their immigration status is tied to their employer – for addressing their grievances.
This isn’t a small problem, either. Although originally introduced as a marginal arrangement, 457 visa workers now account for between 7-10% of the labour force, and up to 20% among younger workers. Remember how UKIP called in the election for a ‘tougher’, Australian-style immigration system? It seems that all that system produces is vast numbers of exploited workers. Tough on migrants, certainly, but not on migration itself.
Unions in Australia are concerned both about the exploitation the 457 visa workers are experiencing, and of course the way this drags down wages for permanent citizens, and undermines domestic training programmes. But while they are campaigning for the 457 visa loopholes to be addressed, Australian workers are also demanding better treatment for the migrants.
Transport Workers’ Union national secretary Tony Sheldon has called for migrants to have the right to vote (they pay taxes, after all) and demanded laws against exploitation and illegal undercutting of wages. He says that all those profiting from the temporary visa system should be responsible:
“Retailers and other economic employers should be accountable for their supply chains. Only by protecting foreign workers do we protect everyone’s rights to a job with dignity. If we fail to do this our kids, our neighbours and our communities are doomed to have their lives also degraded by substandard work.”
“We need to get serious about protecting the rights of temporary foreign workers, because we should be fighting for this basic principle: whether you’ve got a 60,000-year family heritage in Australia or arrived here last week – if you do Aussie work, you deserve Aussie rights.”