The Immigration Department is investigating claims that dozens of workers on 457 visas working at a Northern Territory mine are being paid half the wages of their Australian counter-parts.
The investigation centres around workers at the remote McArthur River zinc, lead and silver mine, which employs around 560 people, both full-time and contracted. The FIFO operation is operated by Xstrata.
Bryan Wilkins, an AMWU organiser, said ESPA, a Spanish firm who employ 12 diesel fitters at the mine, were being paid less than half the wages of Australian-hired workers, The Australian reported.
Wilkins claims the foreign workers were paid an average of $5000 a month before tax, or around $21 an hour not factoring in penalty rates or allowances.
In comparison, Wilkins said Australian tradespeople were paid around $45 an hour, with Xstrata’s staff earning $10,800 a month before bonuses.
The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union national secretary, Paul Bastian, said the union opposed 457 visas.
"We have a view that skills shortages are best overcome through a combination of training and permanent migration," Bastian said yesterday.
An Immigration Department spokesman said:
"The department is aware of the case and is looking into it. We investigate every allegation received, and appropriate action is taken.
"We don't disclose the outcomes of these investigations. Any information related to a sponsor alleged to be failing the sponsorship obligation should be forwarded to the department's dob-in line."
Last month, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that her government intends to tighten the use of the visas and aims to put “Aussie jobs first”.
The government changes are to include a requirement for employers to demonstrate a genuine shortage of potential employees before nominating positions for 457 visas and raising the English language requirements for certain positions.
In addition, they would enact stronger compliance and enforcement powers to stop employers who routinely abuse the 457 system.
Both unions and the Gillard government have claimed companies have abused the 457 system.
Wilkins said the McArthur mine investigation was more evidence that the 457 visa system was being rorted.
"There are sometimes skill shortages, but we come across cases where employees are trying to undercut local wages by exploiting foreign workers and the poor situations in their own countries," he said.
CFMEU National Assistant Secretary and head of the Construction Division Dave Noonan called for legislation to ensure an end to abuse of the system.
“We need legislation that forces employers to be honest and accountable to skilled Australians who are looking for work. If there is a genuine shortage proven, then and only then, can employers take this route; as a safeguard against systemic abuse of these vulnerable guest workers,” he said.
“The CFMEU welcomes the Prime Minister’s acknowledgement of the evidence of the failures of the 457 visa system. 457 visas have shot up 20% over the last year while employment has only grown by 1 per cent.”
However, miners claim they need to hire skilled foreign workers in a bid to boost productivity.
Resources and Engineering Skills Alliance CEO Phil de Courcey told an Adelaide conference further productivity declines were on the horizon unless the mining industry boosted its skilled workers.
De Courcey said the fields of drilling, geology, engineering, and project management were of particular importance.
He said poor productivity and a lack of labour were still blocking some benefits from the mining sector.
“We've had a lot of new projects that have come online and we haven't had the population and the skills growth in Australia to support those from existing resources,” he said.