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Are 457 visa-holders being exploited?

Over 93,000 overseas skilled workers are currently living and working in Australia on 457 temporary visas.

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(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Many come with their families to enjoy the sunshine and relaxed lifestyle, with hopes of one day securing permanent residency.

But for some the 457 visa scheme results in exploitation.

Organisations that support workers are calling for the program to be reformed to put a stop abuses by some unscrupulous employers.

Twenty per cent more 457 visas were issued to overseas skilled workers in the first two months of this financial year compared to the same period a year ago.

The 457 visa scheme allows employers to sponsor qualified overseas workers to fill nominated positions for up to four-years, if the vacancy cannot be filled locally.

Increased demand for workers in the health care and social assistance industry, along with the construction sector, is currently driving-up the number of 457 visa applications.

Businesses that sponsor overseas workers have numerous obligations, many aimed at protecting the employee from exploitation.

For example, sponsors must show they are providing overseas workers with the same terms and conditions of employment as their Australian co-workers, and grant workplace inspectors access to payroll records and sponsored workers.

They must also ensure overseas workers are only employed in their nominated position.

‘INSUFFICIENT COMPLIANCE CHECKS’

But Jobwatch, an employment rights legal centre in Victoria, says insufficient compliance checks mean some 457 sponsors are getting away with exploitation.

For Walter, an experienced restaurant manager from Italy, being granted a 457 visa marked the start of a stressful period in his professional life.

He was granted a visa on the basis he would be employed as a restaurant manager.

But his sponsor ultimately forced him to work in a less senior role, and threatened to have him deported if he did not do the 50-plus hours a week demanded of him.

“The job described was that I had to be the restaurant manager of that place. I had to make a roster, I had to deal with the suppliers, deal with the customers, like running the place actually. Instead after the first week he completely changed his mind. He doesn’t give me the power to manage the place. Actually I was just a waiter, no more, no less.”

At one point Walter was made to work three weeks without a day off.

He says he felt like a slave.

“It’s even a little bit of my fault, because I don’t really know how the law works in Australia. Instead he told me alot of fake things about oh if you don’t follow me I can cancel your visa, I can kick you out from the country, when he couldn’t.”

Walter says he had nothing in writing from the Immigration Department to refer to when he found himself in urgent need of guidance.

Visits to the Immigration Department, and time spent scouring its website, did not help him fully understand his rights, or the obligations of his employer.

“The problem with the office it sometimes depends on the tellers. And for the same question the different tellers give you different answers. So this is a little bit confusing for me. The major part of the information I found out from other people like me with the same 457 visa. They have the same visa as me, the same problem as me. For me it was pretty difficult to go on the site and find information. Because it is not easy to find. I found a lot of information for the employer, not for me.”

CALLS FOR TRAINING ON WORKPLACE RIGHTS

JobWatch warns that lack of understanding of workplace rights could lead to people being used as cheap and disposable labour.

Executive director Zana Bytheway says 457 visa holders should get some training on their workplace rights as soon as they arrive in Australia.

“Not only in English, but also I believe in their native language. And also where do they go in order to enquire? It’s one thing to get some form of education, but it is only when you are in the process, and in the actual moment that you need to know where do you need to go for some assistance. And that’s really important.”

Immigration lawyer Emma Mackey says 457 sponsors are really struggling with their obligations.

She says the areas they most frequently fall-down in are meeting training requirements, notifying the Immigration Department of changes, and monitoring wages to ensure they track current Australian market rates.

“Larger organisations have dedicated people on staff who can manage their programs and their obligations and they are also much more reputationally focused than smaller organisations. So I think in the main large organisations are managing their obligations well. The medium sized organisations I see a difference in who within the organisation is responsible for the there is a company secretary or some person with a risk management focus is managing the program rather then some human resources of financial officer in the company. I think it is the small organisations that really struggle because they are the owner or managers wears lots of hats, and it is those organisations that need the most external assistance in meeting their sponsorship obligations.”

Emma Mackey says the Immigration Department needs to make more information available to employers about their obligations via its website and seminars.

“I understand that is a big job given the size of the country. But these obligations are complex and employers do need assistance in coming to terms with what they need to do in administering the 457 visa program.”

Jobwatch’s Zana Bytheway fears some employers are using the 457 visa scheme to recruit what she calls “compliant labour”, workers who will accept sub-standard conditions or under-payment because they hope one day to attain permanent residency.

“In 2009 there were some changes made with the view of preventing the exploitation. But I still think that we still have a long way to go. One of the first things that we really need to do is – I think the current monitoring and compliance system actually needs to be improved. Why employers are allowed to exploit workers in this way is because of this inadequate monitoring and compliance.”

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) currently has 61 officers in sponsor monitoring roles, including 37 inspectors.

Where a sponsor is found to have breached its obligations it can be barred from the 457 program.

It may also be ordered by a court to pay a fine of up to $33,000 for each failure.

Earlier this year, DIAC for the first time took an employer to court for breaching its 457 sponsorship obligations.

The small business in Victoria was found to have failed to pay a migrant worker equivalent terms and conditions, and keep records of wages paid.

It was fined $35,000, and ordered to pay court costs of around $11,000.

However, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union says the fact less than four per cent of sponsors received visits from inspectors last financial year demonstrates a lack of interest both in the department, and higher-up in the federal government, in checking that 457 workers are not being ripped-off.

‘SLUGGISH RESPONSE’

National Construction Division Secretary Dave Noonan says the union has repeatedly raised with DIAC specific examples of 457 visa holder being exploited by their employers, but has seen a sluggish response.

“One experience that we had is that we made a complaint about a resources construction project where we had been advised that a number of workers from China were being paid less that the market rate, which they are entitled to. After several months of continually raising the matter with the department and indeed the relevant minister, DIAC finally sent an officer up to that site. The individual officer did not contact any of the people who were able to provide information that we provided. When he contacted the company we understand the workers were selected by the company as a sample of workers that the officer spoke to and the company provided an interpreter. In those circumstances there is no way that any worker is going to make a complaint. And it points to he fact that DIAC has been incompetent and unwilling to properly look after workers who are here on 457 and other temporary work visas.”

Zana Bytheway from Jobwatch says unions can offer stressed out workers useful advice and invaluable support.

But she says often 457 visa holders do not belong to them.

“Often in terms of the calls that we receive the visa holder actually didn’t know that they could join a union. Or alternatively where they have wanted to they have been told I suppose in no uncertain terms that that is not the path that they should take. So that is another level of protection that they have been denied.”

The CFMEU’s criticism of the 457 visa program has led some employers to suggest the union is xenophobic, or racist.

Dave Noonan rejects the claim.

“What’s happened in Australia’s immigration policy is that there has been a stealthy shift from the sort of permanent migration schemes which characterised the period after the Second World War to guest labour schemes which are only designed to suit employers. And we think Australia’s migration scheme ought to act to benefit the interests of all Australian citizens and residents, not just the interests of a few employers.”

457 workers who quit their jobs or lose them have 28-days to find an alternative sponsor and apply for another visa, or leave the country.

Zana Bytheway says this is not enough time.

“In that time they have to find a new sponsor employer who has to undertake all the steps of becoming a sponsor, that is time consuming and creates enormous amounts of pressure, and dare I say it is fairly unlikely. The 28-days is incredibly restricted. It should be extended. Some commentators have said that it should be extended to 3-months at least. My argument is that it should be even longer, to say 6-months.”

Zana Bytheway also argues that the 28-day time limit should be suspended whenever a 457-visa holder has filed a claim against a former employer.

“Because if they have been unfairly dismissed or there has been a general protection claim then they are entitled, as we all are, to the full protection of the law.”

The CFMEU is also in favour of extending the 28-day deadline.

But, immigration lawyer Emma Mackey is not.

“The difficulty might be if you are working in an area that is depressed in an economic sense, and that’s the reason why you have lost your job then it may be difficult to find another employer in that time. But the 457 visa is only meant to be a temporary visa that is used to fill skills shortages and government policy is very clear on this that if you don’t fall into one of those categories and you aren’t going to make an application for permanent residency that that’s a good time to be heading back to your home country.”

For Chris, a 457 visa holder from Germany, life in Australia is everything he hoped it would be.

Cricket, rugby, the outdoor lifestyle.

But the 45-year-old, who works in the international transportation and logistics industry, says the conditions attached to his visa make him overly dependent on his employer for his life in Australia.

It’s a situation he feels the company turns to its advantage.

“Well I have to be entirely grateful that they sponsored me for the visa, that they made it possible for me to come here. So I have very limited ways of being controversial or talking back because I know I am at their mercy. I cannot just go across the street and pick another employer. Well let me put it this way, if you walk through our office at 7:30 at night you will find four people there. And the four of us have one thing in common we are all on a visa. And we work probably the most hours in the building and that is not a co-incidence.”

Like many migrants Chris worries about his family back home, and what he would do if a loved one suddenly fell sick.

While his instinct may be to drop everything and return home, a clause in his contract gives him cause to pause.

Quitting his job could leave him liable to pay tens-of-thousands of dollars to his employer.

“The company stipulates in the contract that they had certain expenses to bring me over here. So those expenses they would like to have back, or at least partially back, if I would for some reason leave the company within the first 36-months of my tenure here. So I am wondering if I get a phone call from my family in Germany to say my mother had a stroke or something, if I have to leave the company can technically ask for money to pay back the cost of coming here. So I have a feeling that the risk for me moving to Australia is not shared equally.”

Lawyer Emma Mackey says having contributed to the cost of relocating a migrant, some 457 visa sponsors can be left feeling angry and frustrated when the worker quits, especially if it is to move to a new job.

She says some sponsors have told her they would like to see the scheme changed so workers who resign are required to leave the country.

“Having sponsored an employee and brought them from overseas, and invested time in training there is really no way that the employer can tie the employee to the sponsor. And so they might be in a position where they have invested significant money in bringing a worker to Australia and his or her family and getting them settled and then they resign and move to another sponsor and that employer is left with no way of recouping costs. So that is a significant issue under the present system for alot of employers.”

Before packing-up their lives and moving to Australia, Emma Mackey says would-be migrants would do well to fully research what they are getting themselves into.

She warns they bear some of the responsibility if life in Australia does not live up to their expectations.

“I do find that surprising that you would be prepared to uproot yourself and your family and move some significant distance to a new country and yet not be prepared to make some investment in ascertaining if it is a good option for you. A registered migration agent is a very important part of any organisation involved in the visa process. And for individuals as well. You need to understand what can and can’t be done. Because there is alot of talk among visa holders about what their friends did and how their friends did it. And often there are reasons why that would not work for you. And if you are not taking advice then you can end up as a visa holder very disappointed with the outcome you ultimately receive.”

Team will overcome Jackson NBL loss: coach

Losing a marquee player like Cedric Jackson is disappointing but nothing the New Zealand Breakers say they haven’t dealt with before.

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The MVP of the National Basketball League tweeted on Friday that he wouldn’t be returning for a third season for the Auckland franchise, who have won the past three NBL titles.

Jackson was clearly the best point guard in the NBL, regularly standing out with his speed, penetration, vision and outstanding defence.

But Breakers head coach Dean Vickerman says the club will deal with his departure the same way they dealt with that of previous stars Kirk Penney and Gary Wilkinson.

“When Kirk left, people said we would struggle – we won the championship. When Gary left, people said we would struggle – we won another championship,” Vickerman said.

“We are already working with our contacts to find another very good player … I am confident in our systems and our reputation that we will be successful in that search.”

Jackson has been playing in the Summer League in the United States while seeking a NBA contract but he’s more likely to find a spot with a European club in the next season.

Breakers general manager Richard Clarke says the club has planned for Jackson’s possible departure.

“Obviously we would love for Cedric to have returned for another season or two but, after his stellar performances in helping us win two championships, he was always going to be in demand.

“Initially, he is chasing his dream of returning to the NBA but the opportunities and money in Europe are beyond us and beyond the Australian NBL at this point. We have had our scouts looking for possible replacements for some time and will continue with that process.”

Turkey strikes back after Syrian shelling

Turkey bombarded Syrian army positions afresh in response to what Turkish officials said was a new shell strike on a border town, just hours after UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned of the dangers.

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Ban said there was a growing risk that the conflict in Syria, now in its 19th month, could spill over into neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon, and called for an end to foreign arming of either side.

Syrian troops launched a major assault against remaining rebel districts of Homs province in a bid to finally clear the central region of resistance, and kept up its bombardment of rebel-held neighbourhoods of second city Aleppo, just 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the Turkish border.

The Syrian shell struck in the Altinozu district of Turkey’s Hatay province, at the western end of the two countries’ border, a Turkish official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He said troops had been under orders to respond to all cross-border fire since shelling from the Syrian side killed five Turkish civilians, including a mother and her three children, last Wednesday.

“The Turkish military retaliates immediately after every single Syrian shell,” the official said. “We have anti-aircraft batteries pounding Syrian targets.”

Hatay governor Celalettin Lekesiz said earlier that six shells fired from the Syrian side had struck Turkish soil during the day.

“All of them landed in rural areas,” he said.

The Turkish parliament on Thursday gave the government the green light to use military force against Syria if necessary.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul said that was not a mandate for war but on Monday said he remained in constant contact with military commanders to ensure an appropriate response.

“Whatever is necessary is being done as you already see, and will continue to be done,” Gul said.

The UN Security Council on Thursday strongly condemned cross-border attacks by Syria and called for restraint between the two neighbours.

On Monday, Ban warned: “The escalation of the conflict along the Syrian-Turkish border and the impact of the crisis on Lebanon are extremely dangerous.

“I am deeply concerned by the continued flow of arms to both the Syrian government and opposition forces. I urge again those countries providing arms to stop doing so,” he added.

The Syrian government accuses Turkey and Gulf states Qatar and Saudi Arabia of backing the rebels. The Syrian opposition charges that Damascus is receiving support from its regional ally Iran.

The new cross-border fire came amid a war of words between Damascus and Ankara over a call by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for President Bashar al-Assad to step down immediately to make way for a transitional government.

Syria accused Davutoglu of having made a “political and diplomatic gaffe” by suggesting that Assad hand the reins of power to Vice President Faruq al-Shara, the leading Sunni Muslim in the minority Alawite-dominated regime.

“We’re not in the days of the Ottoman Empire any more,” Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi said.

“I advise the Turkish government to give up (power) in favour of personalities who are acceptable to the Turkish people,” he fired back.

Inside Syria, at least 65 people were killed on Monday as fighting raged between troops and rebels in Aleppo in the north, in Homs in the centre and in Daraa in the south, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“The army is in the midst of trying to cleanse the last rebel districts of the city of Homs,” a Syrian army commander said, adding that troops were also poised to assault the nearby town of Qusayr.

Qusayr-based activist Hadi al-Abdallah told AFP via the Internet: “The situation here is bad. The shelling is very, very violent.”

The Khaldiyeh and Old City neighbourhoods of Homs have been in rebel hands — and under a total army siege — for more than four months, according to activists and monitoring groups.

Nearby Qusayr has been under siege since late last year.

In Aleppo, the northern metropolis of some 1.7 million people, the army renewed its bombardment of rebel districts in the east and north, the Syrian Observatory said.

One resident of a northern district who gave his name only as Abdullah told AFP that he had moved his wife and five children to a safer area and only returned to his home once every few days to check on it.

“I admit I’m afraid,” he said.

Comment: Super intelligent machines aren’t to be feared

By Tony Prescott, University of Sheffield

Fear of machines becoming smarter than humans is a standard part of popular culture.

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In films like iRobot and Terminator, humans are usurped. Throughout history we can trace stories about humankind overreaching through a desire to understand and copy ourselves, from Ancient Greek mythology to Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shelley’s Frankenstein. Today’s Prometheans are supposedly scientists working on artificial intelligence (AI), who run the risk of creating machines intelligent enough to supercede us.

But this is no mere convention of dystopian science fiction, worries such as these are expressed by academics too. A recent review by Luke Muehlhauser, Executive Director of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, suggests that “the default outcome from advanced AI is human extinction”. If this is true, we definitely have cause for concern.

Muehlhauser and others are worried we will reach a point in the future where AI will surpass human intelligence – a moment often referred to as the “singularity”. Once the singularity is reached, so-called “runaway AI” might continue to improve itself at an accelerating rate, leaving human intelligence far behind.

It may seem that our foot is on the path to destruction, but this sense of foreboding is based on a particular assumption about how we should compare AI to human intelligence. Human intelligence is usually thought of as the raw brain-power of the average individual. The human brain evolved to its current capacity around 100,000 years ago. It has not changed much since then and is unlikely to improve any time soon. Based on this comparison, it seems plausible that AI could surpass us in many respects in the near future.

But other comparisons might be more appropriate and more informative. For instance, perhaps we should be comparing AI with the collective intelligence of humanity. After all, as an entity, AI can stretch across multiple machines. Likewise, the human race amounts to much more than the sum of its parts when we share our capabilities.

And why strip us humans of our intelligence-enhancing artifacts? Since the Stone Age, about 50,000 years ago, humans have used language to store and communicate knowledge, boosting our individual and collective reasoning capacity. Computers, the internet, even AI itself, are just the most recent additions to a set of technologies whose earlier members include red ochre (for cave painting), papyrus, the abacus, the printing press, typewriter and telephone.

These intelligence-boosting technologies have hugely expanded our ability to apply shared knowledge and control our environment according to our goals. This historical acceleration could easily be described as “runaway human intelligence”, as cultural and scientific development have led to a larger, longer-lived and better-educated human species.

Now, with advanced communication technologies such as smartphones, we can share our intelligence better than ever before. In this way, we contribute the raw processing power of our individual brains to what Francis Heylighen has called the “Global Brain”.

Visions of the future: it’s not all death and destruction for humanity. Cayusa

This enhanced, species-level intelligence has no obvious ceiling. We can continue to create technologies that complement our natural intelligence, which will allow us to communicate faster and make us collectively smarter. Comparing future AI with the Global Brain, puts a singularity event much further off, and makes it much less plausible that humanity will be left behind in the intelligence race.

Worrying scenarios remain, though. It could be that a split emerges between AI and the Global Brain, where a sneaky and malevolent AI attempts to conceal its advances from humanity. Like Skynet, the self-aware AI in Terminator, it could bide its time until it is ready to eliminate all unnecessary humans.

But this scenario underestimates the contribution of our biological intelligence to any future human-machine collective. There are many things that we do exceptionally well and which are hard for machines to master, because they lack the same richness of sensory and motor interaction with the world. Researchers are working hard on this challenge, and making some progress, with organisations like the Convergent Science Network providing a venue for collaboration and communication.

Still, the limitations of robots are obvious at events like the Robocup2013 tournament. Though they can pass the ball around, their awareness, dexterity and flexibility remain a very pale imitation of ours.

These ‘kid-sized’ robots still can’t bend it like Beckham.

Acting in, and understanding the world, are skills in which humans excel, and intelligent machines will need us around to intepret the world for them for a long time to come. There is no real economic incentive for replacing this aspect of human intelligence, either. Machines will continue to be engineered to take on the tasks we do poorly, rather than the ones we do well. Like symbiotic systems in nature, the future partnership of people with intelligent machines will be successful because its two halves complement, rather than copy, each other.

The most plausible scenario is that our collective intelligence will continue its runaway path. Greater and deeper integration between humans and our intelligence enhancing technologies will result in an increasingly bio-hybrid – part biological, part artificial – form. What is good for AI will then also be good for us.

Tony Prescott receives funding from the EU Framework 7 Programme via the Convergent Science Network (上海性息网网,www.csnetwork.eu/)

Misty eyed at the end of Atlantis era

“It was a great day today,” Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Space Operations, told SBS after the shuttle had left the earth.

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A space shuttle launch can be an emotional event and in that respect STL-129 did not disappoint.

“Every time they launch, I cry,” said one ground employee who has worked at the Kennedy Space Center site since 1975 and seen every launch – not all of them as smooth and successful as STL-129.

With “just” 59 problem reports during countdown, STL-129 set a record, of sorts, for a smooth, hitch-free, ride into space.

After 25 years of service, 2010 signals the final year of the Space Shuttle program which will come to an end after five more missions.

The United States government is currently considering which direction to take it’s human space program.

Options currently before President Obama include missions to Mars, revisiting (and staying at) the moon, further expansion of low-orbit missions like the Space Shuttle, and there’s even thoughts of opening up the US space program to commercial ventures.

From 2011, Russia will provide the taxis taking American astronauts to the International Space Station over the next seven years of its planned lifespan, using the legendary Soyuz spacecraft.

“It’s a little difficult to predict the future,” Gerstenmaier said about NASA”s next course. “By February there should be some policy known and some direction. We are preparing for all eventualities.”

NASA’s top bosses have no fear admitting they’re getting misty eyed at the end of an era – even as they were sending Atlantis into orbit.

“We were talking in the firing room [where the launch is controlled] today,” revealed Mike Leinbach, Launch Director. “It is starting to hit home [that this is coming to an end].”

Space Shuttles, it seems, have the potential to develop their own personalities.

“When we lost Columbia [in 2003] it was almost like losing a family member,” Leinbach added.

The end of the program?

It’s like kicking the kids out of home.

“This is a special time in history,” said Gerstenmaier. “You have to see it and feel it.”

The NASA boss wasn’t just talking about witnessing one of the five remaining launches close up but he could well have been.

From a distance of 4.8 kilometers (the closest vantage point for all but eight rescue workers on standby 1.5 kilometers from the launch pad) the launch of Atlantis inspired tension, drama, and awe.

And for many, the misty eyes weren’t kicked off by dust.