Australia to probe deaths of foreign workers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am

The Australian government has opened an inquiry into the recent deaths of three foreign labourers - including a mainlander who was crushed by a falling tree - who were in Australia under a controversial visa scheme.

Australian companies have sponsored more than 100,000 foreign workers under the 457 visa scheme, but unions say the foreigners often lack skills and training, speak poor English and undercut the salaries of Australians. They also say the workers lack employment safeguards.

The mainlander was one of several guest workers from China who were employed by a timber firm in Queensland. He died this month while felling trees near the town of Mitchell.

'My understanding is that he was not qualified to do the work and that he was sent out into the forest on his own without supervision,' John Sutton, secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, said yesterday. 'We believe a tree fell against another and he was crushed to death.'

Two Filipinos also have been killed in the past month. One was crushed between slabs of granite while working as a stonemason on a building site in Western Australia. The other, an agricultural labourer, fell from a truck in the Northern Territory.

The deaths highlight concerns about the guest worker scheme, which unions say leaves foreign workers vulnerable to abuse.

'There are a whole range of things which are highly unsatisfactory about the visa class,' said Mr Sutton.

'Many of the foreign workers have poor English language skills. If an employer doesn't like the look of them he can terminate the sponsorship at a whim. They are then tossed out of the country unless they can find an alternative employer.'

He said companies were allowed to employ foreign workers without having to demonstrate that they could not find Australians with the same skills.

'You don't have to bother looking for Australian employees - you can just go to a Chinese labour hire company and bring in 50 boilermakers, or whatever,' he said.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has ordered three separate inquiries, with findings expected next month.

Last week the government introduced tougher sanctions on employers who abuse guest workers or fail to fulfil contractual obligations.