Saunders seeks better protections for vulnderable migrant workers

21 May 2008

By The Record

By Paul Gray
Australia’s low birthrate will lead to an increased reliance on temporary foreign workers to give us many of our basic needs, according to Bishop Christopher Saunders of Broome.

Bishop Christopher Saunders

While the nation has traditionally relied on migrant workers, this figure is set to “expand dramatically” in coming decades, says the bishop in a pastoral letter published by the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council.
Bishop Saunders said in light of this major trend, Australia must do everything it can to protect vulnerable migrant workers from exploitation, by improving monitoring and compliance with visa conditions.
He said the Australian Government should ensure decent wages for migrant workers, many of whom send their earnings to their families living in poverty in their home countries.
Bishop Saunders, who heads the Council on behalf of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, says research evidence makes it clear that as the workforce ages, Australia will lack the labour to meet growing demands for services, build infrastructure or staff expanding industries.
“It is estimated that over the next 20 years, the overall annual immigration intake will need to increase by at least 30 per cent, from around 160,000 to around 230,000 people.”
The bishop says there are already 57,000 people working in Australia under a system known as Visa 457 – the Temporary Business (Long Stay) visa.
Bishop Saunders says there are significant concerns about the treatment of some workers on the present visa system, particularly in lower skilled jobs.
Last year a parliamentary inquiry recorded cases of exploitation and abuse of migrant workers.
The abuses involved under-payment, unpaid overtime, poor communication in unsafe working conditions, workplace injuries and deaths, racial abuse and threats, and unfair termination leading to deportation.
“Because Australia is likely to have more such workers in future years, it is important to be vigilant in regard to their working conditions and human rights,” Bishop Saunders writes.
There are also moves towards having more low-paid migrant workers here, with industry bodies and some trade unions urging a new visa system to allow workers from our region to come to Australia to work in lower paid, lower skilled seasonal jobs like fruit-picking.
The bishop says only a small number of the 10,000 Australian businesses using the 457 visa system have been accused of abuses, and there is no doubt most businesses are providing worthwhile work and doing the right thing by migrant workers.
However he cited newspaper reports from the past two years. In one case involving two migrant workers who were dismissed, the employer subsequently used their ATM cards to empty their bank accounts of the $30,000 each had earned.
In another case, a migrant worker was sacked after he had paid off a $10,000 “debt” to his employer.
He was then replaced immediately by another worker from China.
Bishop Saunders said the modern church was increasingly calling on Governments to protect the rights of migrant workers, in light of the fact that immigration into developed countries by people looking for a better life is on the increase worldwide.
Allowing migrant workers into the country can act as a “vital support” to nations in our region which are enduring the effects of poverty and civil unrest, the bishop argued.
Meanwhile the bishops’ delegate on immigration issues, Bishop Joseph Grech, has welcomed the Australian Government’s decision to discontinue the Temporary Protection Visas system for asylum-seekers.
The decision has restored equality of treatment to all who seek a protection visa in Australia, regardless of their method of arrival here, Bishop Grech said.
“The Catholic Church has argued consistently that all genuine refugees are deserving of Australia’s complete and ongoing protection.
“There should be no distinction of visa entitlement based on their method of arrival in this country.”
The bishop said the decision means that Australia can now “meet its obligations under international law.”
It should restore Australia’s reputation as a nation which truly cares for all those people who come to our shores in need of protection.