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‘Modern day slavery’: Aussie company accused of paying $9 an hour

Launch of the first of Austal's 21 new Guardian Class, Pacific Patrol Boats at Austal's Pacific Patrol Boat shipyard facility in Western Australia.  (AAP Image/Austal)
Launch of the first of Austal's 21 new Guardian Class, Pacific Patrol Boats at Austal's Pacific Patrol Boat shipyard facility in Western Australia. (AAP Image/Austal)

The Electrical Trades Union has accused shipbuilding company Austal of “exploiting” roughly 30 Filipino workers by paying them $90 per day for 10-hour days.

Workers were not paid overtime if they were asked to work Friday or weekends, effectively meaning they worked for free, the union is alleging.

Some Filipino workers were also carrying out electrical work despite not having a valid Australian electrical license, according to the union. Additionally, workers weren’t given payslips, with wages being paid into overseas banks that incurred a $7 international transaction fee.

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Austal claimed the workers were in Australia for training purposes to observe how tasks were performed, but the union argued this was not the case.

The union said the Filipino workers were on temporary work subclass 400 visas and had to be paid under award rates.

This temporary visa is for workers with specialised skills that cannot be found in Australia, but the union said in a statement that “this [was] a complete sham”.

“Austal sacked 30 local workers to bring in these Filipino workers on far less than minimum wage,” the statement said.

The union also alleged the workers had signed an employment contract from Austal Philippines in relation to their employment in Australia, but once they arrived here, were forced to sign a new contract with different conditions.

“Austal’s treatment of these Filipino workers is modern day slavery and it has to stop. Austal has brought these workers over specifically to exploit them while kicking local workers off jobs,” said ETU WA state secretary Peter Carter.

“This is pure wage theft. These guys are doing qualified electrical work for $9 or less an hour because Austal don’t want to pay local workers a fair wage. We demand local jobs for local workers with decent pay and conditions.”

Austal was recently awarded a $350 million defence contract to create six new patrol boats for the Royal Australian Navy, to be built in its Perth facilities.

ETU national secretary Allen Hicks said the shipbuilding company’s decision to hire foreign workers over local workers was “appalling” in light of the multi-million dollar contract.

“Austal is ripping off the Filipino workers, local workers and the Australian economy all at once. We demand for the exploitation of overseas workers to cease,” Hicks said.

Yahoo Finance has reached out to Austal Australia, the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Australian Council of Trade Unions for comment.

‘Incorrect and inflammatory’: Austal hits back

In a statement to Yahoo Finance, an Austal spokesperson said the ETU’s statements were “incorrect and inflammatory”.

The Filipino workers were paid their local home rate as well as a “significant daily allowance” on top of local accommodation that was paid for by Austal, the spokesperson said.

“The workforce is paid for every hour worked in line with their local contracts and visa conditions.”

It is “normal practice” for the company to rotate employees through its different locations across Australia and Asia “for training purposes on a voluntary basis,” the spokesperson added.

“Austal’s shipbuilding capability is highly specialised and this training ensures an even level of production quality across our different manufacturing locations. The training is highly sought after and valued by employees.”

The 30 Austal Philippines workers were unable to return home at the end of their training because of Covid-19 restrictions on international travel, and Austal has requested an extension on their visa until they are able to return home, the spokesperson said.

Australian staff working in the Philippines have also been unable to return home.

“Austal has one of the largest apprentice training programs in our location and we are proud of the fact that we have extended that ethos to our locations overseas, bringing new skills and opportunities to both manual and professional workers and their communities.”

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