Visa victims thrown onto street
(Photo: “We had been cheated” Gong Wei and Huang Jiandong are evicted from their home, and the employer who sacked them, Frank Wang.)
Sydney Morning Herald
September 13, 2007
EIGHTEEN months ago, Gong Wei and Huang Jiandong arrived in Sydney hoping to build new prosperity for their families in China.
Yesterday the two men were homeless, penniless and on the brink of deportation, the latest victims to slip through the cracks of the skilled worker visa scheme.
As the Herald highlighted last month, some employers have been recruiting vulnerable foreign workers under the 457 visa scheme and forcing them to work with substandard pay and conditions.
Gong, 32, and Huang, 37, say they are each owed more than $30,000 taken from their bank accounts by their former employer, Frank Wang. Wang says they spent their money on “girls” and are harassing him for money he does not owe them. Although the case is being investigated by Bankstown police, the Immigration Department and the Workplace Ombudsman, Gong and Huang were evicted from their home yesterday and, with no rights to stay in Australia, fear they will be sent back to China before anyone helps.
A parliamentary inquiry's report into the scheme called yesterday for a series of changes, including the introduction of a “comprehensive, confidential complaints mechanism” to allow workers to report breaches without being punished by their employers.
Huang and Gong's story started early last year. Gong, a carpenter, and Huang, a construction worker, were approached by Chen Hai Ping, their supervisor at a building site in Jiangsu province. Chen knew a man named Zhang Yin Shi, who had a relative in Australia named Frank Wang. “We were told that the boss wanted to build a house in Australia and he needed two workers,” Gong says.
Wang owns Elite Marble & Granite at Condell Park, near Bankstown Airport. He sponsored Gong and Huang on 457 visas to work here for two years.
There were immediate breaches of the visa conditions. The Herald has seen the contract they signed. It offers annual wages of just 100,000 renminbi ($16,130), which would not be paid until their two years was up, an allowance of $50 a week, and $540 a month deposited into their bank accounts in China.
The 457 visas stipulate a minimum wage of $41,850, employer superannuation contributions and other entitlements that Australian workers enjoy.
But the Chinese contract gives them only two weeks' annual holiday, demands six-day weeks, and offers only $10 an hour for overtime. It says they are “unconditionally obligated” to do whatever work the employer asks.
In addition, they had to pay $8065 each as a “deposit” to Wang's representative in China.
When they arrived in Sydney on March 28, 2006, Gong and Huang went to work building Frank Wang's house in Baker Street, Enfield. “We worked there for three or four months, whenever there was not enough to do at the factory,” says Huang.
Wang gave them free accommodation in a two-bedroom Enfield unit which they shared with three other Chinese workers. He also gave them rice, vegetables, meat and cooking oil.
Wang says he paid the two men their full wages. Tax Office group certificates show each man earning $55,700 for 2006-07.
But Gong and Huang say the only money they ever saw was the $50 weekly allowance plus the $135 a week going into their Chinese bank accounts. In September 2006, Wang opened Commonwealth Bank accounts in the men's names, using his factory as their address. Their ATM cards and PINs were sent to Wang.
Each week until May 2007, after-tax wages averaging $780 were paid into the two accounts and withdrawn the same week. Gong and Huang were never given their ATM cards and Wang confirmed to the Herald that he and his wife, Julia, had withdrawn the cash. He said they gave it to the men, a claim Gong and Huang strongly deny.
On May 15 this year, the men's diaries show, they worked a 17-hour day ending at 1am. When Wang drove them home, they say they complained about continued underpayments.
“He promised us his wife would pay us,” Gong says. “But the next morning when we got to work at 10am, Frank was angry at us for being late.”
A week later, Wang terminated their employment and informed the Immigration Department that he was no longer sponsoring Gong and Huang's 457 visas. This would activate a 28-day period within which the men must find another sponsor or leave the country. The department extended this period until last month, when it served the men with a notice of intent to deport them.
“They complained, complained, complained,” Wang told the Herald as his reason for sacking them. “They had only sixth-grade education. They were no use to me.”
Gong and Huang, in turn, complained to the department, the Workplace Ombudsman and the Chinese consulate. Only then did they get their ATM cards. When they went to the Commonwealth Bank in Burwood, they expected to find the $24,000 to $26,000 each that they were meant to have been paid since September. They found only a few hundred dollars.
“We had been cheated,” says Gong.
The Workplace Ombudsman's office has undertaken to help the men after they return to China.
The office the Immigration Department is investigating, but as it is now a criminal inquiry they are waiting for NSW police to finalise their investigation.
This is of little help to Gong and Huang, who were evicted yesterday and left to search for somewhere to sleep.
They asked Burwood police to arrest them so they could have somewhere to stay, but they had committed no offences so the police dropped them at a railway station. Later they left and went searching for any place where they could spend the night.
“Our families are very worried that we have no money to send to them,” says Gong, who, like Huang, is married with one young son.
“They are worried about our safety in a foreign country. We want to go home, but we want our money first.”
A Sydney immigration agent helping them, Charles Tao, said the men were clearly being ripped off and exploited. He said he was frustrated that the Government would not help them before they were deported.
“I said to Immigration, you issued the visa, you have the monitoring system, but nothing happens. We are very disappointed in the Australian Government.”
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