Victim: Bhawna Verma with her partner Harvinder Mehta and their son Kiyan Mahta. Photo: David Thorpe
Hundreds of foreign workers and students are being forced into debt bondage after paying up to $40,000 for a skilled worker visa, with some signing contracts stating they’ll be sacked if they engage in “trade union activities”.
A Fairfax Media investigation can reveal the most extensive rorting of the 457 and 187 visa schemes ever to be exposed, with up to 200 cases across Australia including:
It was very upsetting. I thought how will my baby and I survive?
29 Filipino workers who have complained to their embassy after some had to direct part of their salary to repay loans organised by recruitment and migration agents that have interest rates of up to 50 per cent.
foreign workers promised long-term work or permanent residency if they paid between $5000 and $40,000 to middlemen across the nation only to be given temporary work or, in a small number of cases, little or no pay.
80 Indian workers duped into paying $4000 for a cleaning course in Melbourne worth only $1300 after being misled that it would enable them to get a work visa.
Some of those Indian workers were directed by their recruitment agent to work as unskilled labourers in abattoirs in an arrangement one of the abattoir owners, JBS Australia, said involved the agent misleading it and the workers.
The rorting of the visas schemes and exploitation of foreign workers has been labelled “a national shame” by ACTU secretary Dave Oliver and involved numerous companies operating across Australia and often under the noses of authorities.
“There needs to be further investigation to see what is happening with this system where workers are becoming bonded labour,” Mr Oliver said. “This is a racket involving migration agents, middlemen, exploitation of workers and loan sharks.”
One of the most blatant examples involves Clinica Internationale, a company owned by Melbourne man Radovan Laski, which has been able to continue operating, despite numerous complaints to the Immigration Department.
Mr Laski convinced up to 100 Indians to hand over up to $40,000 after promising to help them get a 187 visa, which allows a skilled worker to get permanent residency if they are sponsored by a regional employer.
But Mr Laski failed to find many of the workers the promised jobs and sponsorship, instead sending some of them to work as unskilled labourers in abattoirs. One of Mr Laski’s victims, temporary residential visa holder Bhawna Verma, 27, from India, was pregnant and desperate to stay in Australia when Mr Laski promised in writing in 2012 to find her employment and sponsorship if she paid an initial $5000 fee. After paying the money, Ms Verma was sent to work for an associate of Mr Laski in Ocean Grove, Victoria, where for two months she received no wage and did only odd jobs.
“It was very upsetting. I thought how will my baby and I survive?” Ms Verma said.
Fairfax Media has uncovered a separate network of companies based in Geelong, the Gold Coast and the Philippines that are targeting Filipino workers seeking 457 temporary skilled worker visas.
Twenty-nine workers recently complained to the Philippines embassy, detailing the ”excessive” fees they had to pay agents and demanding an investigation.
Documents obtained by Fairfax Media reveal that some of the Filipinos signed contracts that stated they could be fired for ”trade union activities” or falling sick.
The documents show Filipino workers paying up to $14,000 to agencies and some paying interest rates of more than 45 per cent.
Other documents show Filipino workers directing as much as a third of their $50,000 annual income to pay off high-interest loans.
While the schemes involving the Indian and Filipino workers are run by separate companies, they both involve excessive fees and workers often scared to speak out for fear of being deported.
Mr Laski – named in federal Parliament as conman – warned a worker in an email that “I will be down on you like a ton of bricks” if they complained to authorities.
Emails show that Mr Laski and his business associate, George Stamatakos, were charging dozens of Indian workers $3950 to do a $1300 cleaning course at Melbourne’s Complex Training Centre.
When Mr Stamatakos was asked why they charged the Indian workers three times the fee charged by the training centre, he said: “If I could charge $6000, I would do it.”
He said he charged “between 60 to 70″ Indian workers the $3950 fee but referred questions to Mr Laski, who did not respond to calls.
Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor told Fairfax Media the Gillard government would introduce sweeping reforms, enabling 300 Fair Work inspectors to investigate visa rorts.
”The government has had serious concerns about rorts of the 457 system for some time and the Department’s limited powers to monitor and enforce compliance of the scheme,” Mr O’Connor said.