AMWU Western Australian State Secretary Steve McCartney spoke at a fringe meeting at the recent ACTU Congress on work his union has done fighting to organise 457 workers into the union. Here we reprint an excerpt from his speech.

We’re fortunate in the AMWU we’ve always had good values of trying to develop people who are downtrodden and whose wages and conditions are getting stood on.

Some companies seize every opportunity they can to exploit most workers but especially to exploit some of the most vulnerable workers in Australia, 457 workers, where the boss owns your ability to stay in the country, he also owns the ability to sponsor your family over here at some stage and ultimately get permanent residency.

The difficulty in organising 457 workers in that environment is simply the fear that if they did stand up, if they did start to work with us, there’s a very good chance they’ll be on the next plane.

We’ve had a few situations in Western Australia where we’ve gone down to the airport and rescued these guys, who were picked up at work, chucked in a car and taken to the airport without any knowledge that they were leaving the country.

Exploitation

One engineering company went out and bought two houses and employed 28 workers. Part of their contract of employment was $167.50 a week rent. They were living in two houses these 28 guys and all paying that money.

One lever that companies use on 457 workers is that if you work every Saturday for nothing, for a year, I’ll get you permanent residency. I’ve meet 40 or 50 people that have been exploited that same way.

We’ve tried many ways to get to these groups of people, especially Filipino workers.

We started something called the AMWU Filipino Social Club, we had karaoke nights, barbeques. We started off with two or three and ended up with 243 workers in this community group.

We were looking at how could we fix up metal workers, but we had all these other people saying I want to join your union, I’m a butcher, I’m a baker or whatever.

We realised we needed to have a broader approach. So we started talking to other unions about how to work together.

The Teachers union became quite an asset to us. We started up courses on Sundays for free, with volunteered time to teach English for 457 workers so they could meet the benchmark, when the government brought in new benchmarks for English. That generated more support.

We found that once they get involved in the union, once they understand this is a group that will support them, they’re absolutely rusted on members.

We’ve managed to get some 457 workers out of bad companies and into companies that actually respect their skills and pay them accordingly.

The ACTU and the union movement and I know our union has been putting a lot of pressure to make sure they do get the market rate [of pay], do get treated like other people in the community.

What we really have to do is put it inside our laws to ensure that everyone that works in Australia has the ability to get the same support as anybody that works in Australia.

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