Scheme To Help Protect 457 Visa Workers From Injuries Quietly Shelved

Andy Zhang's arm is cased in skin-coloured bandages that mask the reality of the mangled flesh beneath.

SMH, by Nick Toscano, 25 October 2014

Injured: Chinese migrant Andy Zhang, whose arm was mangled in a work accident. Photo: Jesse Marlow  Read more:

Injured: Chinese migrant Andy Zhang, whose arm was mangled in a work accident. Photo: Jesse Marlow

It hangs by his side, lifelessly, as a permanent reminder of the six months he worked as a machine operator on a 457 visa in Melbourne's west, when he was allegedly exploited by his bosses and exposed to grave danger.

The Chinese migrant is like thousands of temporary overseas workers in Australia, who are feared to be at a greater risk of on-the-job accidents due to poor language, less training and vulnerability to mistreatment.

But a system to better protect 457 visa holders - by tracking their workplace injuries and monitoring employers - was quietly shelved in Australia despite concerns of exploitation.

In January 2008, Mr Zhang's employer, a tyre recycling company, had allegedly rented him out to work at an unfamiliar factory. His right arm was caught and chewed up in an unguarded industrial tyre-shredding machine, which his lawyers claim he had not been trained to use.

"Every day I will be accompanied by the pain of my wound," said Mr Zhang, 44, who migrated from China with his wife and daughter.

"No amount of compensation can make up for the physical and mental pain that I suffer, and also cannot bring back my right arm or allow me to return to work, or social life like a healthy person."

Amid concerns for foreign worker welfare, the federal Immigration Department struck deals with regulators in Victoria, NSW and Queensland in 2009-10 to set up a regular exchange of information including the names of all 457 visa holders, the businesses employing them, and details of workplace injuries and deaths.

The Commonwealth-state agreements were made to "strengthen the monitoring of employers hiring overseas workers on subclass 457 visas".

But Fairfax Media has learnt the agreement with the Victorian WorkCover Authority was quietly scrapped in 2012, after just one report from the department.

Assistant Minister for Immigration Michaelia Cash said similar deals had also ended in NSW and Queensland.

"These agreements remain in effect but there is no regular exchange of information as there have been no requests for data," a spokesman for Senator Cash said.

"The department works cooperatively with relevant government agencies regardless of the existence of an MoU [memorandum of understanding]."

Worker advocates have condemned the lax approach of governments to protecting temporary overseas workers, who are at a heightened risk of workplace injury and death.

"It's not good enough," Maurice Blackburn senior associate Lachlan Fitch said.

"If agreed procedures between the Immigration Department and WorkCover are not being followed, then information is falling through the cracks, and employers who have caused injuries could be reapplying for sponsorship visas."

The concerns come after the federal government unveiled changes that could make it easier for employers to import labour under the temporary skilled migration scheme.

A recent federal government report proposes a "fast-track" of the approvals process for larger companies with good records and relaxed English-language requirements.

Mr Fitch, who represented Mr Zhang in a legal battle for damages, said the incident was a stark illustration of the troubling findings of a recent Fair Work Ombudsman report that foreign workers were being underpaid and performing jobs that did not match their visas.

"Mr Zhang's case shows they are vulnerable to catastrophic injury and that there needs to be better monitoring of sponsors' compliance with health and safety obligations," he said.

A Victorian WorkCover Authority spokesman said all workers were entitled to the highest level of protection against health and safety risks, regardless of their work status or background.

He said WorkCover aimed to mitigate the increased risk factors for temporary overseas workers, such as language barriers, by targeting high-risk industries.

"This includes industry sectors that employ workers who, because of language education and other barriers, may have a limited understanding of their workplace rights and responsibilities," he said.

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