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Skilled Filipino migrants were given illegal contracts

The Age - 11 May 2015 - Infrastructure giant Thiess employed migrant workers on illegal contracts that allowed the company to sack and deport them for joining unions, as new evidence emerges of human rights violations under Australian visa programs.

Infrastructure giant Thiess employed migrant workers on illegal contracts that allowed the company to sack and deport them for joining unions, as new evidence emerges of human rights violations under Australian visa programs.

Details of the latest breaches within the controversial 457 visa scheme will be referred to a wide-ranging Senate inquiry into foreign worker exploitation. It comes after allegations of migrant farm labourers being grossly underpaid and kept in slave-like conditions were also referred for urgent investigation

The Thiess Services contracts, seen by The Age, were uncovered when the company laid off about 30 powerline maintenance workers last month due to declining work in Melbourne. The forced redundancies left 11 skilled Filipino migrants with 90 days to leave the country or find alternative visa sponsorship.

Their contracts are signed by the general managers of Thiess Services Australia and were issued in 2012 via an agent in the Philippines.


But unusual clauses – threatening termination for engaging in "trade union activities" – have raised serious concerns, with the Electrical Trade Union claiming the contracts amount to the "most flagrant violation of international labour rights we have ever encountered".

"In terms of coercion against joining a union this is about as extreme as you can get," the union's state secretary, Troy Gray, said.

"The terrifying part is if these threats can be made in writing to migrant workers, by an iconic Australian construction conglomerate, what's happening everywhere else?"

Australian and international human rights laws ensure the right to freedom of association, including the right to join trade unions.

It is understood Thiess Services revised the contracts several months after signing on the Filipino workers, acknowledging that bans on union representation had been illegal. It is not known how many of the 457 visa workers had contracts changed.

Filipino worker Antonio Enriquez, 45, said employees on work visas remained in fear that the company could "take away our jobs at any time" if they sought union representation.

"We were worried about what would happen if we do that," he said. "We gave up everything to come here."

The workers have also accused Thiess management of repeatedly assuring them their jobs were safe and that they would be nominated for permanent residency in Australia after two years of work.

"They gave us so many promises we would be made permanent residents," Mr Enriquez said. "But instead of giving us residency, they gave us redundancy."

Christopher Velasco, 37, said he and his colleagues were careful to always obey the rules of their employment.

"We did the best we could at our jobs, hard working and obeying the company's policies, so we are very sad that in return they are not giving us their obligations," he said.

"Our children have adjusted here in our new environment ... this was a one-way ticket for us and our families."

A company spokesman declined to comment on questions from Fairfax Media.

Federal Greens industrial relations spokesman Adam Bandt​ said the contracts were in clear breach of workers' rights and raised concerns that other illegal agreements could be in use among visa-sponsor employers.

He called on the government to ensure the 11 Filipino migrants could remain in Australia while the contracts were investigated.

"Thiess is one of a number of companies that have been given the power to self-regulate," Mr Bandt said. "The government must audit these companies' contracts that are currently working under 457 visas to ensure that more workers aren't having their rights taken away through illegal contracts."

Australia's workplace watchdog, the Fair Work Ombudsman, has begun inquiring.

Thiess Services is half-owned by CIMIC Group, formerly known as Leighton Holdings, which is one of Australia's largest construction companies.

A spokeswoman for the Abbott government said the allegations were "serious, and if true, are a breach of the law".

Filipino community group Migrante said the workers had contributed enormously to their new country over the past two years, and deserved the protection and security of a better future in Australia.

Laid-off worker Ricardo Bernardo said he was searching frantically for another electrical job to allow his family to keep living in Melbourne. "It's about my family's future," he said. "My son is here, my wife is here, and now we only have 90 days."

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