Warnings to watch out for fellow workers being treated like slaves

Nicholas McCallum

Foreign visa workers paid 'less than $40 a day'. 

Members are being warned to watch out for all their fellow workers following the disgraceful discovery that four foreign workers were being paid “less than $40 a day” to do work they were not qualified for.

Electrical Trades Union officers heard word in early August four foreign workers on subclass 400-visas were brought in to install inverters for Schneider Electric – work the men were not licensed to do in Australia.

When local workers at two separate solar farms in NSW and Queensland learnt the foreign workers – two men from Thailand and two Filipino nationals – were virtually being paid slave wages, they pitched in to offer money from their own pockets so the men could afford to eat.

ETU NSW and Queensland-NT organisers separately attending the solar projects at Coleambally in northern NSW and Ross River near Townsville heard of the conditions the four workers were living under and raised it with Schneider, only to be rebuffed by the multi-billion-dollar French company.

One visa application submitted by Schneider Electric stated the employee would “continue to be remunerated under his current home payroll’s ongoing terms and conditions of employment”.

But this would contravene Australian law and standards while violating the worker’s rights, that according to the government’s own visa documents “cannot be taken away by contracts or agreements”.

Queensland & NT ETU Officials.

“To hear workers in Australia could be treated like this and living on a pittance is shocking,” said ETU NSW Organiser Ben Lister after uncovering the situation at Coleambally. 

“This was nothing short of slave labour and we’re calling on all ETU members to keep an eye out for others who might be in the same situation.”

Michael Wright, National Assistant Secretary of the ETU, after hearing of the workers’ situation, said the ETU "understands these four workers have been surviving only because of their fellow workers’ generosity, with workmates chipping in to give them some extra cash”

The ETU later put it to Schneider that it intended to pay these workers well below Australian standards.

“Workers in Australia, employed by a multi-billion-dollar multinational company like Schneider, shouldn’t be relying on charity to get by. This is exploitation, plain and simple,” Mr Wright said.

“But why these men were set to work on jobs for which they are not licensed is a question that Schneider needs to answer.”

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According to visa application submitted by Schneider Electric and obtained by the ETU, one of the workers was described as having experience that “cannot be matched by an Australian employee”.

Considering how many sparkies there are in the ETU, Mr Wright took objection to Schneider’s dubious claim.

ETU NSW Organiser Ben Lister was one of the officers who uncovered the workers' situations.

“The ETU has more than 60,000 members across Australia and I find it impossible that none of them were qualified to work on these Schneider jobs,” he said.

The same document also suggested the worker “meets the minimum skill level required to undertake the role”.

But this was simply not true, as the men did not hold the correct electrical licences to undertake the work they were designated to perform in Australia, namely installing, inspecting and testing inverters.

Although the four foreign nationals did initially speak to ETU officers about their situations, they soon went quiet – likely out of fear of repercussions to their livelihoods upon return to their homelands, as all four are employed by Schneider’s local subsidiaries. 

“This company has neglected its duty to find local workers and instead chosen to exploit foreign workers and Australia’s visa system at the same time,” the National Assistant Secretary said.

It was a cynical ploy from Schneider, and one that Mr Wright said makes mockery of Australia’s visa system by allowing the company to use foreign workers for roles that should be staffed first by local workers. It also revealed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s apparent crackdown on visa exploitation had achieved little.

“Malcolm Turnbull claimed he closed the loopholes in our temporary visa program, but it seems there are breaches still being exploited by unconscionable companies,” Mr Wright said.

“There needs to be a full inquiry into Australia’s visa system to make sure these gaps are closed so that foreign workers are no longer used like slaves by companies undermining industry standards.”

The ETU National Office, NSW and Queensland-NT branches raised the matter with Schneider, informing the company that the alleged abuses of employee rights and immigration law would be taken seriously.

Schneider’s legal representatives tried to justify the substandard conditions in correspondence to the ETU, stating the men continued to be “employed by their employing entities within the Schneider Group” and were not Schneider Electric Australia employees. 

Despite this assertion, the letter continued, Schneider said it had made a remuneration package available for the four men, comparable to what they would be entitled to under its 2017 EBA.  

Given the company’s nonchalant response, the ETU is asking all members on sites associated with Schneider to be vigilant and ensure their fellow workers are not being exploited and to inform their union reps if they suspect that any are.

The matter reinforces the need for Australia to appoint an independent commissioner to adjudicate instances of wage slavery, as the ETU indicated in its submission in July to amend the Modern Slavery Bill 2018.

If you suspect one of your colleagues is being treated like a slave, get in contact with your ETU organiser. 

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