||Issue No. 217||23 April 2004|
Interview: Terror Australis
Unions: Graeme Beard's Second Dig
Industrial: The Hell of Troy
Organising: Miners Strike Gold
Economics: The Accepted Wisdom
History: Vicious Old Lady
International: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Review: War Unfogged
The Locker Room
"Slave Labour" in WA Revolt
The boilermakes, pipe fitters and welders – earning as little as $11.45 an hour at Pt Hedland, Perth and Kalgoorlie – rallied in the WA capital, demanding Australian rates and relief from oppressive conditions tagged to their four-year immigration visas.
One Pt Hedland boilermaker was earning $13.40 an hour, after deductions, alongside workmates on $44 an hour.
The undercutting of Australian rates and conditions reignites last year's furore in which Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock threatened a South African diplomat after she accused employers of using "slave labour" from her homeland.
AMWU state secretary, Jock Ferguson, says the 25 imported workers who joined his union are the tip of a "bloody big iceberg".
Labor hire cum immigration agency, Freespirit, claimed it had 1000 South Africans employed across Australia.
Unions say Freespirit and the powerful WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry are behind the undercutting of Australian rates.
One worker, a boilermaker who left his wife and children in Johannesburg under the impression he had a family visa, went public about his predicament last Wednesday. On Thursday he was sacked from Perth engineering shop, RCR.
Members of the group said they had answered advertisements in Johannesburg newspapers placed by a company called Australian Business Associates. They said the ads spruiked "hundreds" of skilled positions available in Australia.
They went to a meeting with a woman, claiming to represent both Freespirit and the WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry. She told them four-year visas would be arranged and they would earn around $25 an hour.
When they arrived in Australia they were farmed out to a range of sites where all-in rates were quickly eaten away by a $1 an hour health care levy; nine percent super deductions; and 12.5% labour hire charges.
On top of that, they face $5000 slugs to cover airfares and administration costs on visas arranged through Australia's Immigration Department.
The majority said they signed to pay 144 percent interest on that figure after being told that, on arrival, they could transfer to more manageable rates on visa or bank cards. Without credit ratings, they didn't qualify for Australian cards and remain saddled with the initial rate.
They said they had been told, in South Africa and on arrival in Australia, that they must not join a trade union.
Workers said they were supplied with visas and told to find jobs. If employment finished, despite being sponsored by Freespirit, they had to find alternative work and report back to the labour hire company so it could shave its margin off whatever rate they had negotiated.
Ferguson labels the arrangement "pyramid labour hire".
"We have nothing against these people, they are workers looking to better themselves and their families," Ferguson says "but they are being used to undermine every agreement and every worker in Australia."
Organiser, Steven McCartney, said the South Africans had been so harshly treated they had risked dismissal to involve the union.
"They've stood up to be counted on this. They don't know anyone in this country but they do know they are being shafted by Freespirit, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Federal Government."
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