Irish workers facing exploitation in Australia

Pearse Doherty, Sinn Féin TD, visited Australia in 2012 and addressed the issue of Irish workers' rights

Pearse Doherty, Sinn Féin TD, visited Australia in 2012 and addressed the issue of Irish workers’ rights

Published in An Phoblacht in August 2012

The economic crisis in Ireland is of such magnitude that it dominates everybody’s lives.

In the 26 Counties, there are now more than 450,000 people out of work and the unemployment rate has reached 14.6%. The collapse of the building industry has left more than 100,000 construction workers jobless. Youth unemployment has trebled since 2008. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions recently stated that one in three men under the age of 25 is unable to find work.

These figures are actually masked by the soaring level of emigration from this state, with 70,000 Irish citizens now emigrating each year. Rural Ireland and the west of the country have been hardest hit. An entire generation of young people have been driven overseas in scenes reminiscent of the 1950s and 1980s. In County Leitrim, half of those between the ages of 22 and 26 have left.

Earlier this year, Fine Gael Government Minister Michael Noonan added insult to injury by claiming that emigration from Ireland was a “lifestyle choice”. Forced emigration is not a lifestyle choice. It is an indictment of the failure of this government, and the previous Fianna Fáil-led government, to implement a growth agenda that can create and retain jobs.

The fact is that the Fine Gael//Labour Party Coalition Government is happy to see emigration soar because it acts as a pressure valve for them in a situation where they have utterly failed to introduce an effective job-creation strategy.

Destination Australia 

Together with Britain and Canada, one of the main destinations for Irish citizens is Australia. The Australian economy is performing better than any other in the developed world – due in part to a resources boom but also because the Australian Government responded to the global financial crisis of 2008 with an effective stimulus programme instead of austerity.

In the past four years, tens of thousands of Irish citizens have emigrated to Australia in search of work. Most Irish workers are employed in the construction, mining, healthcare and hospitality industries. They are in Australia on two main types of visas: Working Holiday visas and Temporary Skilled Worker visas (‘457 visas’).

Working Holiday visas are granted to people aged between 18 and 30 for one year, and can be extended for a second year if the person meets certain requirements. 457 visas are granted to a skilled worker and his or her dependents for up to four years by employer sponsorship, and may be converted to permanent residency if the employer supports the visa-holder’s application.

Australian Government figures show that in the past year there was a 70% rise in the number of 457 visas granted to Irish citizens on the previous year. Between July 2011 and April this year, more than 8,000 457 visas were granted to Irish nationals, with about a quarter of these in the construction and mining sectors. Ireland is now the third-largest source of temporary skilled migrants through the 457 programme.

More than 22,000 Working Holiday visas were also granted to Irish citizens in 2011, almost double the number granted the previous year.

Migrant workers vulnerable

There is evidence that some Irish workers are being exploited in the workplace in Australia as they are dependent on their employer for their visa to be maintained, extended and possibly converted to permanent residency. Any workers beholden to their employer for their residency rights are naturally going to be vulnerable to exploitation and reluctant to speak up if their rights are being abused.

Australian trade unions have dubbed 457 workers ‘bonded labour’.

There are parallels between the way migrant workers are used in Australia with the way agency workers and posted workers have been abused in Ireland and across the EU. As we know from our own experience, the creation of a group of second-class workers can be used by unscrupulous employers to lower wages, conditions and rights across the board.

In Ireland, Sinn Féin has called for a Government-led job creation strategy and outlined our plan for a 13billion euro stimulus programme that could create 130,000 jobs over three years, based on existing sources of funds available to the Government.

We want to see a fundamental shift from an austerity agenda to a growth agenda so that young Irish citizens have a future in their own country. And the last thing we want to see is Irish workers being underpaid and exploited in a country they have been forced to emigrate to.

Examples of exploitation

Issues facing Irish workers in Australia include underpayment; the denial of entitlements such as leave and workers’ compensation; and diminished safety standards on sites where migrant workers are concentrated.

1) Underpayment

In the past, workers employed under the 457 visa programme were only entitled to be paid a minimum salary. The Australian trade union movement campaigned for guest workers to be paid at the market rate, and in 2008 the Australian Government legislated for this right. Now employers are legally bound to ensure that 457 workers receive the same pay and conditions as Australian workers or permanent residents in the same workplace.

There is mounting evidence gathered by the trade unions that employers continue to pay 457 visa workers less – in some cases dramatically less – than the going rate.

The reasons why temporary workers are vulnerable to exploitation and underpayment were investigated and documented in the 2008 Government-commissioned Deegan Review of the 457 visa system, which pointed to the high degree of power employers wield over guest workers in relation to their residency rights.

2) Sham contracting

‘Sham contracting’ occurs when a company tells a worker to obtain an Australian Business Number (ABN) and then signs them up as an ‘independent contractor’ instead of as an employee. Companies use this practice to evade their responsibilities to their employees and deny them their proper rights and entitlements.

While in reality the worker is an employee of a company, the ABN system allows the employer to avoid paying leave, overtime and redundancy payments, and workers’ compensation insurance.

This is another way of driving down pay and conditions across the board, and temporary workers are especially vulnerable to this practice, which in addition to underpaying these workers provides them with no recourse whatsoever if injured in the work place.

Trade unions have noted that there are a large number of Irish workers on both types of visa in this situation, even though 457 visa-holders are not actually legally entitled to work under the ABN system. The threat of withdrawing sponsorship forces many Irish workers into sham contracting arrangements in which they are being denied their basic entitlements.

3) Unsafe sites

Construction and mining, together with road transport, are the most dangerous industries in Australia.

In the construction industry, on average one worker a week loses their life on site. Figures have shown that restrictions on the right of unions to enter sites for safety reasons between 2004 and 2009 resulted in a corresponding rise in workplace accidents, injuries and deaths in the industry.

The fact is that union sites are safer sites.

Irish workers and other migrant workers in the construction sector are concentrated in non-union sites and have low rates of union membership. Trade unions have pointed out that this low level of union membership among migrant workers is at least partially related to the nature of the visa system and the power relationship between the employer and worker.

Benefits of union membership 

The economic crisis in Ireland is set to continue, and emigration is likely to continue to rise over the next number of years.

There are also moves in Australia to expand mass temporary migration schemes, called Enterprise Migration Agreements, using 457 visa workers, as well as moves to reduce the skill level required to gain a 457 visa under these schemes. As the temporary worker programmes expand they will attract more Irish citizens to Australia.

Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty, due to visit Australia in September 2012, told An Phoblacht: “Sinn Féin encourages every Irish worker in Australia, and all those planning to emigrate here, to make sure their rights at work are protected. The best way to do this is to join the union as soon as they arrive in the country.

“Trade unions can provide protection against underpayment, denial of entitlements, unsafe conditions, and threats of deportation by an employer.

“Australian trade unions are campaigning against the abuse of the migrant worker system by employers, and in favour of equal rights, conditions and protections for migrant workers. They are right to do so.

“Sinn Féin has consistently defended the rights of agency workers in Ireland and Europe and demanded equal rights for all workers in order to stop the ‘race to the bottom’ on wages and conditions. Just as we, together with the Irish trade union movement, have campaigned for legislation to combat the exploitation of agency workers in Ireland, Australian trade unionists are trying to prevent the creation of a group of second-class workers.

“The existing protections for temporary workers have only been achieved by union campaigns for equality.

“The trade union movement has made an enormous contribution to improving the lives and wellbeing of working people in Australia, and the Irish community has played a vital role in building and leading that movement.

“We urge Irish workers in Australia to join their union not only to continue this tradition but to ensure that their rights at work are protected.”

Know Your Rights: Download a pamphlet prepared for Irish workers in Australia here.

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