Exploitation Claims Spark Investigation of 457 Worker Treatment

The Federal and NSW governments have launched investigations into the treatment of Hungarian workers in Sydney on 457 visas amid claims of exploitation, under-payment and unsafe working conditions.

ABC 7.30, 14 Nov 2013


LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Two separate investigations are underway into the treatment of 20 Hungarian workers brought to Sydney on 457 visas. The construction union claims the workers have been grossly exploited, working in unsafe conditions and paid around half the amount of Australian workers. One man whose injured eye may require an operation was told to pay for it from his travel insurance. Their multinational employer and project contractor have pledged to take action, as Matt Peacock reports.

MATT PEACOCK, REPORTER: These Hungarian workers were flown into Sydney last August. Since then, according to the construction union, they've been working long hours in unsafe conditions at Sydney's Blacktown on about half the Australian wage they're entitled to. Local Hungarian-Australian Tony Day discovered their plight.

TONY DAY, HUNGARIAN COMMUNITY MEMBER: I had a colleague of mine who alerted me to the fact that there was a bunch of Hungarians orphaned and unloved.

MATT PEACOCK: The workers were put into three-bedroom houses like this one, seven in each house.

TONY DAY: On the first night in particular they slept on the floor because there was no facilities and subsequently the company did provide linen and that sort of thing, so they were OK, but there were issues to do with furniture, like tables, chairs.

REBEL HANLON, ASST NSW SECRETARY, CFMEU: Back down here, Matt's, the bedroom, so the boys expected to live here. I've got the boys in here at the moment.

MATT PEACOCK: And there's, what, three people in a room?

REBEL HANLON: Three people in a room, three to two people in a room.

MATT PEACOCK: None of the workers speak English, but as Istva'n Erdei says on behalf of all of them, they now believe they've been grossly underpaid.

ISTVA'N ERDAI, 457 VISA WORKER (voiceover translation): What they promised in Hungary is nowhere near what we have received.

MATT PEACOCK: Details of their pay have been hard to come by.

REBEL HANLON: It was absolutely outrageous. I found out that basically 20 Hungarian workers have been brought out here on 457 visas, haven't received payslips for four and a half months, they've received no information from them employer and what they're actually entitled to and what wages they would be paid out here.

MATT PEACOCK: The construction union's Rebel Hanlon says it's clear the men have been exploited.

REBEL HANLON: They get paid when the employer pays them in a Hungarian bank account. The money there that they're supposed to get under Australian conditions would be nearly double and a half of what they're actually getting.

BRIAN PARKER, NSW SECRETARY, CFMEU: Well you can see the size of this place, it's a huge place, it's very, very big and these workers are working in there and obviously it's very dangerous work 'cause they're working right to the height of the building, right to the very height of it. And they're Hungarian workers with no interpreter on the site and it makes it very difficult for them to bring up any safety issues.

MATT PEACOCK: This is where the Hungarians have been assembling metal racks, inside this enormous shed, for the principal contractor, German multinational Schaefer. The company is fitting out a giant fully-automated warehouse like this one for the Australian supermarket chain IGA.

Neither Schaefer nor the site's owner, Metcash, would allow 7.30 to show film inside the shed, but for the CFMEU's state secretary, Brian Parker, it's been an accident waiting to happen.

What are they doing? If we were inside there now - we're not allowed to go inside there - but they're building rigging all the way up to the roof, are they?

BRIAN PARKER: Well, you can see all the material on the outside here. That's what they're using to put together. They're rigging the work all the way to the top. It's going to be like shelving, but it's mainly to stack, like, palates and the process that they go through there. But it's all going to be robotics, all robotics are running this whole structure in the end, once it's completed. But to build it, it's highly dangerous, they're working at heights, extreme heights and they haven't got anybody to interpret to. They've got issues about safety and about their concerns; there's no-one to talk to because there's no-one that speaks the language.

MATT PEACOCK: Recently, one worker was injured by a piece of metal which lodged in his eye.

TONY DAY: Now what he was told was, "Don't worry about it. It'll get better. There's no need for intervention, blah, blah, blah." Nevertheless, that was easy for them to say; it wasn't their eye.

MATT PEACOCK: He's believed to have lost 20 per cent of his vision and may require surgery.

REBEL HANLON: You've been told off the employer, "Oh, well, you have to pay for this yourself out of your own medical insurance." There has been no help by the employer whatsoever.

MATT PEACOCK: And that's travel insurance, is it?

REBEL HANLON: That's travel insurance, that's correct. That's travel insurance even though these injuries were done in the place of work.

MATT PEACOCK: There are also deep suspicions about the trade certificates that have been issued to the Hungarian workers.

REBEL HANLON: They've got dogging tickets, rigging tickets, scaffolding tickets, driving of crane to three tonnes. These gentlemen have not got the qualifications even to speak up to Level Five English, which is a standard requirement to be able to communicate, to be able to get these sorta tickets in any educational outcome. These gentlemen haven't got it.

MATT PEACOCK: 7.30 asked the companies involved for a comment.

MAN: We will provide a statement later.

MATT PEACOCK: OK. I'd like to know what obligation you feel to comply with Australian ...

MAN: I think we will provide a statement later.

MATT PEACOCK: Well can you tell me how these workers could be employed if they don't even speak English?

MAN: I think we will provide a statement later.

MATT PEACOCK: Could you just tell me: were they covered by workers' compensation?

MAN: I don't know what I can say apart from: we will provide a statement later.

MATT PEACOCK: And they did. The principal contractor, Schaefer, says it was, "... totally unaware of the Assmont workers' claims ... until they were raised in the media," and that it's, "... as deeply concerned as anyone about them ...".

And what about the company Assmont, also a European-based multinational that actually employs these workers, three of whom it's already sent home? It says it has, "... every intention to comply with all Australian industrial rules and regulations ...," and, "... will do everything necessary to ensure that the claims will be satisfactorily addressed as speedily as possible."

BRIAN PARKER: We have four companies that do this work looking to make redundancies right now.

MATT PEACOCK: Here in Blacktown?

BRIAN PARKER: Here in Blacktown, in the heart of Blacktown when unemployment's at its greatest. You know, when youth unemployment is huge.

MATT PEACOCK: It's a sore point, especially for the Australian unemployed here in Western Sydney.

BRIAN PARKER: It's the tip of the iceberg. There's no doubt that this is happening right across the country in places like this and other places as well where 457 visas have been exploited.

LEIGH SALES: Matt Peacock there.

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