John Sutton is National Secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU). The following opinion piece is a revised version of his address to the Catalyst Seminar held in Sydney, 6 May 2008, by Catalyst Australia, a new labour movement think-tank. Here he presents evidence showing that the current (allegedly skilled) temporary migration scheme under the 457 visa is often abused and voices serous concerns about extending temporary labour migration to workers openly acknowledged to be low skilled. His address was delivered before the Rudd Government announced its record increase in the permanent migration program and before it floated the idea of importing unskilled guest workers from the Asia/Pacific region.
I would like to thank Catalyst Australia for the opportunity to speak today. Catalyst is a new forum for progressive ideas in Australia in a new political environment. I'm sure today's event will be the first of many to tackle timely and challenging policy debates. It's fitting that the question of temporary migration forms the basis for Catalyst's first forum. The new Minister for Immigration, Chris Evans, has announced a review of the 457 temporary skilled migration visa scheme and the CFMEU welcomes the inquiry headed by Australian Industrial Relations Commissioner Barbara Deegan. As well, momentum is building behind a proposal for a new scheme to bring in unskilled labour from the Pacific Islands--indeed the new Labor Government's 2020 Summit called for the even broader approach of so-called 'Asia/Pacific labour mobility'.
Migration, particularly temporary migration for work purposes, is firmly on the political agenda so today will provide a useful opportunity to look in detail at the issues and engage in productive debate. We're not all going to agree. We will have different ideas but there is a stark contrast in this forum in May 2008 to previous times. Under the last government, there was no debate, let alone debate where all points of view were heard. It's also heartening that the Rudd Labor Government has heard the public voices highlighting the serious shortcomings of the current 457 visa scheme.
THE 457 VISA: THE HARSH REALITY
The first test of any system regulating work--in this case work and migration--should be the safety of workers and their right to return home uninjured. In mid-2007 I became aware of the stories of three guest workers, men brought in on 457 visas, who were killed at work--details were scarce because the Howard Government wouldn't release information. However, with the CFMEU's encouragement, the Sydney Morning Herald undertook a special investigation. The Herald's investigation detailed the conditions under which these men lived and how they died. One of the men, Guo Jian Dong, worked mostly alone in the Cyprus pine forests of central Queensland. The living conditions of this worker were harsh--he lived in a tiny shack with other temporary migrants. The day he died, Mr Guo was sent out into the forest to work alone on work he was not qualified to do and which was not the basis of the 457 sponsorship visa. He died an ago-nising death trapped under a fallen tree and his body was only discovered many hours later. (1)
Mr Guo was from China. He left behind a bereaved wife and a baby daughter he had never met. He had come to Australia to provide his family with a better life. Two Filipino workers, Pedro Balading and Wilfredo Navales, died at work around the same time--our union expects charges to be laid in the case of at least one of these fatalities soon. All those three men entered the country under the 457 skilled migration visa.
Proper safety protections are one of many aspects of the 457 visa scheme never adequately addressed by the last government. In the construction industry, on average, one worker dies every week. This is alarming and unacceptable. But the situation is even worse for workers on 457 visas. Respected researcher Bob Kinnaird has produced interesting data showing that 457 visa workers are almost twice as likely to die at work as the national average. There are 3.0 workplace deaths per 100,000 workers per annum nationally. But last year the three workplace deaths of 457 visa workers took place in a total 457 workforce of just on 52,000. That rate is almost double that of local workers, equivalent to 5.8 deaths per 100,000 workers.
ABUSES HAVE OCCURRED AND CONTINUE
Let me turn to another case study of abuse. Mohammed Nayeem is a 457 worker from India and now a proud...