Unions Call For Inquiry Into Deaths Of Workers

Unions call for inquiry into deaths of workers

Andrew West
Industrial Relations Reporter
Sydney Morning Herald
December 17, 2007

BUILDING unions are demanding the Rudd Government hold a judicial inquiry into the exploitation of guest workers, after a report revealed the Howard government had cut back on the monitoring of their conditions.

The construction union chief, John Sutton, said the deaths of 21 workers brought to Australia under the 457 skilled working visa program warranted a thorough investigation by the new Government.

Mr Sutton, who will join a union delegation tomorrow to meet Julia Gillard, the Deputy Prime Minister and Workplace Relations Minister, will also push for curbs on the sweeping powers of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

Last Thursday, the Department of Immigration quietly tabled its annual report – one of two held back until after the election by the former government – revealing that in 2006-07 it monitored fewer employers using the controversial visas than in the previous year. This was despite several high-profile incidents, revealed earlier this year by the Herald, in which foreign workers were killed.

“We need a full and open inquiry into the abuse of this visa system,” Mr Sutton said. “There has been a history of cover-ups, deception and incredible exploitation and the new Government needs to put the spotlight on these cases before it starts amending legislation.”

Under the 457 scheme, Australian employers are allowed to use foreign workers to plug skills gaps in the workforce. But over the past two years, dozens of cases have emerged in which workers from mainly developing countries have come to Australia only to find themselves doing unskilled, often dangerous work at cut-price wages, while living in overcrowded houses and even sheds.

The new immigration minister, Chris Evans, would not commit to an inquiry but acknowledged previous abuses of 457 visas. “I recognise the concerns about the past use of this visa and that's why I have made restoring integrity in the scheme a priority,” he said.

The former immigration minister, Kevin Andrews, conceded that 21 workers on 457 visas had died since the introduction of the scheme but insisted only three were killed in work-related incidents. He suggested heart attacks, road accidents and drownings had claimed the lives of the other workers.

“Mr Andrews refused to divulge the details,” said Mr Sutton, “and, quite honestly, his excuses defy credibility.”

Mr Sutton and the ACTU president, Sharan Burrow, will also press Ms Gillard to immediately amend powers of the building industry watchdog, arguing it is abusing its power, especially after the commission admitted to the Herald last week that it had interrogated an innocent bystander who witnessed a minor scuffle on a Melbourne building site.

Ms Gillard has pledged to maintain the commission until 2010 but unions believe the Government can keep its pre-election commitment while stripping the agency of its most coercive powers.

“We have different views to the Government on the timeline for the ABCC,” said Ms Burrow, “but we think a consensus is possible.”