Interview: The New Democrat
Bad Boss: The Ugly Australian
Unions: Free Spirits and Slaves
Industrial: National Focus
History: A Class Act
International: Across the Ditch
Economics: Home Truths
Review: No Time Like Tomorrow
Poetry: Silent Note
The Locker Room
Last Year’s Model
Ground Staff Spread Fashion Wings
Ghan Raises Trans-Continental Stink
Rail Workers Cop ‘Beer Nannies’
Big Business Plan to Cripple Compo
Safety Defects Plague Adelaide
Police Investigate Assault Claim
Labor Council of NSW
Free Spirits and Slaves
In a nondescript office, this month, a burly South African boilermaker broke down and cried in front of a Perth civil servant. Thousands of kilometres from his wife, Richardine, and their three children, Ronald Oliviera had reached the end of his tether.
The 42-year-old is neither proud nor ashamed of his outburst. It just happened.
Freespirit, the company that lured him to Australia on promises of wealth and security, had disowned him and, in spite of a signed contract and four-year visa issued by the Immigration Department, is seeking to have him deported.
Oliveira had broken its cardinal rule. Despite being warned, in South Africa and at the offices of the Western Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, he joined a trade union. And, to make matters worse, he tried to inform the public of predicaments facing him and at least 28 compatriots.
The day after blowing the cover on a rort that saw immigrants paid less than a third of rates earned by Aussies working alongside them, he was called to the offices of suburban engineering shop, RCR Maintenance, and given his marching orders.
"The supervisor was a very nice guy," Oliveira says. "He tried to help me but he said the order came from the top."
The only other South African named in press coverage of their protest got the bullet the same day.
What they revealed was an eye-opener to many in Perth.
The tradesmen had read adverts in Johannesburg newspapers that advised "hundreds" of skilled positions, carrying lucrative salaries, were available in Australia.
On replying, they were called to meetings at the offices of a Pretoria-registered company, Australian Business Associates (ABA).
There, they were told of limitless opportunities across the Indian Ocean and informed their families could travel with them.
"It seemed like a great opportunity for my family," Oliveira said. "Jobs are tight in Johannesburg and crime levels are very high.
"We talked about it and decided to apply. We wanted to start new lives in Australia."
Each South African was charged $5000 for visa applications, airfares and ABA's fee. They could pay up-front or take out loans from companies associated with ABA, Freespirit and/or the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Just who is responsible for what, and the relationships between these entities is unclear, perhaps deliberately so, but more of that later.
South Africans know all about "immigration consultants" who pocket fees and vanish. Oliveira and his wife figured, on the sort of money they were being offered, they could meet repayments on a $5000 loan and opted to cover themselves.
When the visas came through, however, the families had mysteriously fallen off, but the men were assured that, for another $500, they could apply to have wives and children join them once they had started work.
Oliveira flew into a clear Perth day with eight compatriots - boilermakers, pipe fitters and welders - on October 12, 2003.
But, right from the off, things weren't as they had been led to believe.
They went to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry to sign contracts and found themselves farmed out to enterprises across the state on predominantly short-term contracts.
Mysterious "labour brokers" entered the frame and once a job finished they were left to find alternative work themselves. When they did, Freespirit, apparently doubling as immigration consultant and labour hire operator, would take a cut.
After deductions, they realised, the $20-$26 gross amounts shown on their payslips were purely theoretical amounts.
Freespirit was eating away 12 percent of every dollar earned, plus extracting another 14 percent from their employers. It was also deducting super, rather than adding it, and removing another $1 an hour for medical expenses.
Then there was Qantum, the finance house they had been directed to in South Africa. It was extracting repayments on their $5000 loans, based on annual interest rates of 144 percent.
Oliveira found himself handing over $145 a week to Qantum and not denting the principal.
In reality, his before tax income worked out to around $13 an hour. An AMWU lawyer put one of his colleague's at barely $8.50.
And there were no guarantees. Oliveira, for example, worked for four different employers in eight months with payless weeks and fortnights in between.
AMWU secretary, Jock Ferguson labelled the arrangement "pyramid labour hire" and called on Freespirit to negotiate a "reasonable settlement".
That set in motion a round of duck-shoving in which Freespirit, ABA and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry appeared to audition for the role of some corporate Pontius Pilate.
Freespirit pulled down the shutters, directing all inquiries to law firm, Mallesons, or a public relations company. It has refused to negotiate but, Workers Online understands, conceded at an AIRC conference it had breached the terms of its sponsorship arrangements with the Immigration Department.
It also admitted to WA Labor Council officials it had more than 1000 South Africans in Australia working on four-year Section 457 visas.
On May 17 its representative, Phillip Fitzgibbon, wrote to Oliveira informing him Freespirit had applied to DIMIA for the "cancellation" of his visa and suggesting he might like to leave the country of his own volition.
He has half a mind to take that advice but AMWU supporters, and 28 men he has become a spokesman for, are urging him to stay and fight his corner. The union is scouring Perth for an employer prepared to pick up his sponsorship.
"You know," Oliveira says quietly, "I came here with the expectation of permanent residency, working hard, and building a new life. That's what they told us.
"Instead, my family is in trouble. I haven't worked for six weeks, the interest is building up on my loan and I can't send anything back to my wife. She is worried sick and we don't know what to do.
"I am surviving on the generosity of my friend and the understanding of the people who own this house."
"I spoke to a consumer advice counsellor about our situations and he said it was slavery. I agree with him, the whole thing is a scam.
"I am discouraged, I am frustrated and I am stressed out. I don't know what to do."
It's enough to make to make a strong man cry.
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