Exploited Overseas Workers Paid No Wages For Months

A group of Chinese workers brought into Australia to work as electricians and welders were paid no wages for months and forced to survive on a $15-a-day "food allowance" while housed in overcrowded accommodation in regional NSW.

AFR, by Ewin Hannan, 19 April 2015

Taiwanese company Chia Tung Development underpaid 13 Chinese and 30 Filipino workers more than $873,000 for labour over six months to February this year. Chia Tung employs more than 4000 staff globally and has associated entities registered within Australia.

The workers, who installed animal feed mills at sites in Narrabri, Manildra and Bomaderry, were employed as welders, metal fabricators and electricians and generally worked between nine and 11 hours a day, six days a week.

Short-stay work visas

Acting Fair Work Ombudsman Michael Campbell said on Sunday that Chia Tung employed the Filipino men on 457 skilled worker visas and the Chinese, who spoke no English, were on temporary short-stay work visas.

Mr Campbell said the Chinese employees were promised about $10 an hour "but were paid nothing at all for three months' work".

"All they got was a $15 a day 'food allowance'," he said.

"Chia Tung promised the Filipino workers about $27 an hour, but subsequently unlawfully deducted thousands of dollars in 'fees' from their wages – resulting in them getting just over $9 an hour."

Almost 30 workers lived in a five-bedroom house with one toilet at Nowra, with nine sleeping in the living room. At Narrabri, six workers lived in a worksite office, while four lived in an onsite demountable.

Chia Tung unlawfully deducted fees for visa processing, flights, insurance, food and transport from the wages of the Filipino workers.

An investigation by the ombudsman found 13 workers were each underpaid more than $30,000, a further 10 were underpaid amounts of more than $20,000 and 12 were each underpaid more than $10,000.

Chia Tung also breached workplace laws when it sacked eight employees at the Narrabri site without providing the appropriate notice.

No court prosecution

Despite the severity of the offences and the level of underpayment, the Ombudsman did not seek to prosecute Chia Tung through the courts.

Mr Campbell said the watchdog instead opted to seek an enforceable undertaking from the company, arguing it achieved outcomes that would not have been possible through litigation. He said the company co-operated fully with the investigation.

Chia Tung has back paid the Filipino workers in full and agreed to backpay the Chinese workers in full by April 28.

Chia Tung will donate $10,000 to the Philippine-Australian Community Services support organisation, issue written apologies to the underpaid workers, and place notices in newspapers and at the three work sites outlining its contraventions.

The company will also pay for external audits of its pay practices over the next 18 months, provide compliance reports to the ombudsman, require managers to undertake workplace training, and ensure its subsidiary companies and transferees comply with their workplace obligations.

"The EU with Chia Tung secured large back-payments for underpaid workers, as well as other measures focused on ensuring ongoing compliance, that would not have been possible through court action, which could have taken a year or more," Mr Campbell said.

Mr Campbell said the underpaid Chinese workers had now returned home, while 20 of the Filipino workers were still employed by Chia Tung in Australia.

He said the underpayment and "shabby treatment" of overseas workers in Australia was unacceptable.

"Overseas workers are often vulnerable because of a lack of awareness of their workplace rights and language barriers, so we place a high priority on ensuring their workplace rights are protected," Mr Campbell said.

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