Filipino workers living in a South Melbourne office. Photo: SuppliedA group of foreign workers were forced to sleep on a Melbourne office floor for almost a month after their employer put a freeze on wages, renewing concerns of widespread rorting of the 457 visa scheme.
Eleven Filipino workers employed on temporary visas turned Schneider Elevators Australasia’s head office into their makeshift living quarters because they could not afford lodging when their pay suddenly stopped six weeks ago.
Workplace photographs taken by the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union show blow-up mattresses and couch cushions strewn across the floor of the South Melbourne office and employees sleeping among bags of their belongings.
The union’s assistant state secretary, Craig Kelly, said the elevator company had failed to pay correct wages and overtime rates to its 17 workers – including 11 Filipinos, five Australians and a British national – and owed them more than $170,000.
Mr Kelly accused the company of secretly deducting visa charges and building industry fees from the foreign workers’ pay, leaving them with weekly take-home wages of between $150 and $500.
“This is an appalling case of exploitation,” Mr Kelly said. “Originally they were promised board and lodging by the company, but when they got here that didn’t eventuate. So they stayed at backpackers hostels, then when their wages stopped they were basically homeless.”
One of the foreign workers who was employed as a lift installer said staff were paid between $25 and $40 a week while living in the office. He said they moved to a hotel last week after the union intervened.
“This situation without the union, we are still in slavery treatment of our employer,” he said. “Hopefully we can find another job here. We came here for our family, to give them a better future. But right now we don’t have any money in our pocket.”
A recent federal government review recommended plans to relax entry requirements for foreign workers, including allowing specialised workers to stay in Australia for up to a year, instead of six months, under a short-term visa.
Under the proposed change, overseas workers would not need to apply for a 457 work visa, which requires them to take English language tests and forces employers to prove they have first looked to hire locally.
The Australian union movement has attacked the proposals, saying it would let employers sidestep strict sponsorship obligations and lead to more workers being exploited.
The Abbott government has flagged harsher penalties for people found to be abusing the 457 skilled visa program and said it would make it illegal for sponsors to seek a payment for taking on a foreign worker.
The Immigration Department will also cross-check tax office records to ensure workers are being paid properly and will “name and shame” people who exploit overseas workers.
Assistant Immigration Minister Michaelia Cash said the review last year found there was not widespread rorting of 457 visa programme.
Schneider Elevators Australasia managing director Terrence Donnelly declined to respond to repeated requests for comment. A woman who answered the company’s head office phone on Friday said: “I don’t know anything about [people] living here. You need to talk to Terrence.”
According to the company’s website, Schneider currently has contracts in Victoria and NSW to install elevators in apartment blocks, a hotel, library and police station. It says employee and customer safety is “first and foremost”. “Our efficiency in maximising resources will provide you with opportunities for cost competitive solutions.”
A spokesman for Senator Cash said the matter was being investigated and that the government took alleged breaches of 457 visa sponsorship very seriously.
“The Department is currently liaising with the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) regarding this case,” he said.
“If a sponsor is found to have failed an obligation, the Department institutes appropriate action, which may take the form of imposing administrative sanctions, issuing infringement notices, executing enforceable undertakings or applying to the federal court for a civil penalty order.”
“As investigations are ongoing, it is not appropriate to comment further on this particular matter.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Wuxi Plastic Surgery Hospital.