Labour on the killing floors

IT’S a well-trodden path for young backpackers to Australia, a rite of passage that can earn them a buck and extend their holiday.

For years, itinerant workers – mainly overseas backpackers – have streamed into regions like ours on 417 visas, plugging the unskilled labour shortage and pouring money into the local economy.

A veritable industry has sprung up around the practice – hostels, internet cafes and labour hire firms.

But, while on the surface it seems like a cosy marriage of convenience for Tamworth businesses and the young workers, the reality of life as a 417 labourer on the killing floors of local meat processers can be anything but wedded bliss.

On top of the back-breaking labour, workers are often woefully underpaid by unscrupulous labour hire companies, fleeced of their rights and with little recourse.

Some are forced into illegal accommodation, living in squalid conditions and charged extortionate rents for the privilege.

Vulnerable and without protection, these workers are earning as little as $11.50 an hour and toiling for up to 90 hours a week, according to the Meat Workers Union.

For their part, the meat processing companies are usually blissfully unaware of the gross exploitation happening under their nose.

The dodgy labour hire contractors are the real villains, negotiating with companies to provide the labour, sourcing the manpower and managing the payroll.

At a time of rising unemployment in the region, these 417 workers are, in some instances, also taking jobs from locals.

Of course, 417 and 457 visas play a critical role in filling skilled and unskilled labour shortages in regional areas.

But the schemes are only successful if their implementation and ongoing management are closely scrutinised by authorities.

The issues surrounding foreign workers highlight the importance of balanced industrial relations laws.

Giving the business sector freedom to grow while protecting workers’ rights is a delicate high-wire act for governments.

And if the experiences of many young backpackers in Tamworth are any guide, we still don’t have the balance right.