Chinese workers with dodgy safety certificates are being flown into Australia under the freshly minted China Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA).
The workers were also paid illegal wages of just $US75 per day ($103) – half now and the rest when they returned to China – through a company based in China. The received no pay slips, no penalties, no superannuation and had no Work Cover insurance. The going rate paid for lift industry workers is $42 an hour, plus allowances.
“They’re all paid in China. No one receives a cent over here.”
A Fairfax Media investigation can reveal that Sydney-based Hercules Carparking Systems 2004 bought a car park stacker from China’s Shenzhen Fine Automatic Machine Company, which came “with labour”.
According to documents, it took 24 hours for the workers’ visas to be approved. They then flew to Melbourne to work six days a week on a building site in Richmond, Melbourne.
Fairfax Media has obtained copies of the visas, passports, the “white card” site safety certificate and letters of invitation from Hercules inviting seven Chinese workers to come to Melbourne to “assist with the installation of our Pit Type lift and slide mechanical carparking machine”.
White cards, required under the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations to ensure workers on construction sites comply, were issued by Sydney training group ABE Education three days after the visas were approved.
Australian workers on the site said told Fairfax Media the safety equipment used by the men wasn’t safe. One said the equipment looked like kids’ toys.
Fairfax Media can reveal that the online training course offered by ABE is only available in English. The seven workers could only speak Chinese. It was purchased online for $58 after being “organised by someone in the office”, Hercules managing director Terry Smith said.
A caller later made an inquiry to ABE’s Dominic Ogburn asking him to explain how non-English speaking workers could complete the two- to three-hour course. He was told: “We’ve had quite a few people who are Mandarin do our course … So there’s nothing to prevent others from assisting them in going through it.”
When asked if someone could do the course for them, Mr Ogburn replied: “Yeah … We’ve got another company, a Chinese construction company, who have done the first one for them and then they hand out the answers to them and then they go online and then do it themselves.”
He said he didn’t want to be giving any “tips” but “we know that’s what they [the construction companies] do because we say ‘how the hell are they doing it in only an hour’ but we know [laughs] that’s what’s going on. So you could do it and then write down the answers as you are doing each of the questions.”
Mr Ogburn later denied he was advising companies how to rort the system. He told Fairfax Media: “It’s not the correct interpretation. It’s not what I was trying to convey.” He said he had a strong compliance record.
Employment migration expert Dr Joanna Howe, a senior law lecturer at Adelaide University and Rhodes Scholar, said that while under ChAFTA it is illegal to pay Chinese workers less than Australian workers in that occupation, ChAFTA greatly increases the “entry pathway” for Chinese workers without sufficient regulatory oversight and enforcement of labour standards.
“All a visa holder has to do is provide a letter of offer from their overseas employer attesting to the fact that the worker’s ’employment conditions satisfy Australian workplace standards’ and that their ‘activities will not adversely impact Australian workers”.
The ChAFTA was vigorously debated by all sides of politics. In September, a few weeks before it was passed through Parliament, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said an advertising campaign supported by the union movement and the ALP was “extreme scare-mongering” “designed to frighten people back into poverty”.
Some of the concerns raised were that the ChAFTA was too lax and too easily exploited by companies looking for cheap imported labour to reduce labour costs.
Hercules’ MD Mr Smith said it was “absolutely incorrect” that the seven workers were only paid $US75 a day.
He said the figure was the result of a “translation on a translation”, though Smith could not say how much the men actually got paid. “They’re all paid in China. No one receives a cent over here.”
A spokesman for the Department of Immigration said temporary visa holders with work rights “are entitled to the same basic rights and protections as Australian under applicable workplace laws”.
“Employers are obliged to engage and remunerate staff in accordance with the Fair Work Act,” the spokesman said.
“The government takes seriously all allegations of overseas workers being exploited or underpaid.”