[This is one of two articles I wrote towards the end of my three-week stint as a casual journalist with the South Coast Register in January. The editor decided not to use either of them and has kindly given me permission to put them up on my blog. This story was written on Monday 26 January, and although there have been minor developments since then, they do not in my opinion answer any of the questions I raise. An official government investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman is still underway.]
The most contentious question about the discovery of 29 seriously underpaid overseas workers on the Manildra-owned site in Bomaderry and who lived in appalling conditions in south Nowra, is this: who is responsible?
The best candidate is Chia Tung, a Taiwanese-owned company.
According to Alan Sinclair, who represents Chia Tung in Australia, the Taiwanese company was responsible for employing the workers, their contracts, and the conditions under which they lived.
“Instructions and directions come from Chia Tung,” Mr Sinclair told the Register.
While Mr Sinclair’s claims may be true, he cannot so easily brush away his own responsibility as the company’s local representative. Why wasn’t he on top of the situation? Why wasn’t he aware – at the very least – of their living conditions in what effectively was a dosshouse?
We wish we could ask him, but last we heard he is only speaking through his lawyer.
And guilty at the least of being delinquent in the supervision of its own site is Manildra. Despite the fact that 29 workers were building a pellet feed mill for that company, their initial response – given to us by a local politician who had been in touch with Manildra executives – is that the responsibility belongs with the company contracted out to supply and install the structure.
Despite repeated attempts by the Register to ask Manildra questions about the issue, their only official comment is that they are taking the matter seriously and “are making enquiries of Chia Tung as to the allegations.”
Allegations? The workers’ contracts and living conditions have been sighted by the Register. After five days, surely any information forthcoming from Chia Tung would have been collected, analysed and absorbed, and a full response released to the media?
The Register has also attempted to contact the ministers responsible for the departments of Employment and Immigration and Border Protection: Eric Abetz and Peter Dutton, respectively.
On Friday 16 January, only five days before the Register broke the story, Eric Abetz said, “Contrary to some media reports, workers on 457 visas are not a low cost option to avoid the costs of employing Australian residents.”
Well, contrary to his ministerial opinion, workers on 457 visas are being used as a low cost option to avoid the costs of employing Australian workers. Despite repeated requests from the Register for a comment in light of recent developments, we were informed that one would be coming from the office of Senator Michaelia Cash, the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.
While no comment has yet been received from the office of Senator Cash, we have discovered a media release from her office dated January 9 concerning a “substantial fine recently imposed against a Launceston takeaway.”
The takeaway was fined a total of $100,000 for underpaying its Chinese chef by $86,000 over four years. Given the business the chef must have generated over those four years, not to mention the savings in not paying $86,000 in wages, the government’s “substantial fine” barely registers as a slap on the wrist, and hardly a discouragement for other businesses contemplating doing the same.
The official reply to our enquiries from the Department of Immigration is that the department is investigating the matter and “appropriate action” would be taken if a sponsor was discovered to have failed its obligations. Appropriate action could vary from imposing “administrative sanctions” to “applying to the federal court for a civil penalty order”.
South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris said the issue illustrated the gap in the compliance and policing of Australia’s industrial and workplace laws.
“The federal government is so obsessed with restricting the activities of trade union members that they are missing the main game – that this gap creates the environment where the alleged conditions for the 29 overseas workers can exist,” he said.
“What happened at the Manildra site tells us some employers can get away with almost anything, and they believe the federal government will do their dirty work by tying the hands of trade unions which otherwise would be in a better position to uncover these sorts of abuses.”
The reply the Register received from the Department of Immigration also stated that the matter had been referred to the Fair Work Ombudsman. When asked for a comment, spokesperson for the FWO replied that indeed the matter was under investigation, but because it was operational it was not appropriate to comment further.
But is it fair enough that three senior government politicians, Eric Abetz, Peter Dutton and Michaelia Cash, cannot after five days issue a single pertinent comment? If they are not responsible for their respective portfolios, who are? And can the Register please have their telephone numbers?