Foreign workers scheme is slavery, says US
Craig Skehan and Anne Davies
June 14, 2007
Sydney Morning Herald
A US State Department suggestion that conditions for some foreign workers in Australia under a special visa scheme constituted “slavery” has been rejected by the Immigration Minister, Kevin Andrews.
“Unfortunately, the US State Department appears to be ill informed in respect to the purpose of the 457 visa and obligations placed on employers who use the scheme,” Mr Andrews said.
The US criticism followed media reports in Australia of cases of exploitation, including of women in brothels and workers in restaurants forced to pay large sums to employers who brought them to Australia.
Mr Andrews yesterday defended the work visa scheme as a necessary response to skills shortages in a strong economy with low unemployment. He said there had been a tough official response to violations.
While the US State Department lauded Australia's efforts to combat people smuggling operations, it expressed concern over the treatment of temporary guest workers brought to Australia from India, China and South Korea.
The department's investigators said they had received reports that for some workers “labour conditions amounted to slavery, debt bondage and involuntary servitude. The report praised Australia's efforts in tackling sex slavery and sex tourism, but said the Government should devote more attention and resources to addressing allegations of labour trafficking, including in connection with its 457 (temporary visa) worker visa program.”
Mr Andrews said yesterday: “If there is any allegation of an employer not complying with the law, these claims can and should be reported to the Workplace Ombudsman.”
This included employers demanding repayment of large placement fees, contracts that forbid contact with unions, and sub-standard living conditions.
Australian officials recently acknowledged that of 12,000 current sponsors of the 457 visa program, about 500 had been brought to official attention and scrutinised more thoroughly.
The State Department report looks at all types of human trafficking, from people who are coerced into bonded labour, prostitution and domestic servitude to others enslaved on farms or in factories.
Releasing the report, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, said she had noticed a greater commitment from nations to confront and tackle the issue.
“Many countries are now seeing it for what it is: a modern-day form of slavery,” she said.
Mr Andrews yesterday pointed to recently announced tougher penalties for violations of Australian labour laws, including minimum pay requirements.