KASAMA Vol. 20 No. 1 / January-February-March 2006 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

OFWs Exploited in Canberra Restaurant Trade

The Liquor Handlers and Miscellaneous Union (LHMU) hospitality section stepped in and offered assistance and solidarity to exploited Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) on contract to restaurants in Australia's federal capital city. The LHMU has been praised for helping the guest workers escape from what has been described as slave-like conditions.

OFW Margarito “Gary” Sorrosa reported the breach of his job contract to the Australian Department of Immigration (DIMA), and a witness who has been in the Canberra hospitality industry for years, supports Sarrosa’s version, even naming the Immigration official he spoke to. But, DIMA claims to have no knowledge of Sorrosa’s complaint. As well, Sorrosa alleges, three days after making his complaint in October last year, his boss and four other men arrived at his house, forced him into a car and drove him to Sydney International Airport where they intended to forcibly ‘deport’ him. Fortunately on the way, they were pulled over for speeding and Sorrosa was able to escape from the car and tell the police he had been abducted.

Gary Sorrosa is one of about 30 Filipinos issued with overseas worker visas for employment in Canberra restaurants as chefs and cooks. A number of them found they were being underpaid, forced to work long hours and mistreated by their employers. Some were receiving only half their contracted wage rate because of unauthorised deductions and non-payment of Award entitlements. They sought advice from trade union representatives.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) president Sharan Burrow called on the Commonwealth Ombudsman to hold an inquiry into the Government’s temporary business visa program which it believes is out of control with around 8,000 temporary business visas being issued every week.

Burrow said, “the ACTU is astounded by the abject failure of the Government to properly assess and supervise the Canberra employers that sponsored Gary Sorrosa and the other Filipino chefs. Not only have the Filipino workers been exploited and abused, this alleged kidnapping attempt indicates that they have been forced to work in an environment of fear and intimidation. And it is truly shocking that the Government was unable to protect Gary Sorrosa even after he had made a formal complaint to both the Department of Immigration and the Philippines Embassy. The fact that this incident could occur under the very noses of the Department of Immigration in our national capital shows how appallingly few protections there are for people from overseas coming to work in Australia. This incident reinforces the need for an immediate inquiry. The Howard Government is handing out work visas to employers willy nilly and then turning a blind eye when guest workers are abused.”

An Immigration Department spokesman rejected the suggestion, saying the program was professionally and competently run.

The ACTU understands that the Australian Federal Police is still investigating Mr Sorrosa’s kidnapping allegations and calls on the AFP to speed up their investigations and ensure that justice is done.

Journalists from a mainstream Manila television station travelled to Canberra to interview the workers who say they were brought to Australia under false pretences and ruthlessly exploited by using federal Section 457 visas.

They spoke of gross underpayments; contracts being unilaterally changed after arriving in Australia; Human rights abuses; being threatened with deportation if they stand up for their rights; and having all sorts of illegal deductions taken from their weekly earnings.

Donabella Cruz, a chef from Manila, told the media she was shocked and angered by her treatment in Australia. “The fact that I and my colleagues have been bought, sold and traded like some cheap commodity is extremely upsetting,” she said. “It makes me feel like some cheap manual labour device to be used, abused and then discarded.”

Donabella Cruz and other Filipino guest workers came to the LHMU and asked the union to help them escape their predicament. Several of them have joined the LHMU to organise a public campaign to fight against their exploitation. The campaign has received wide¬spread community and media support in Canberra, across Australia and now even in the Philippines.

“This issue is no longer about skill shortages,” LHMU ACT Secretary Gil Anderson said. “Greedy employers are dudding good, skilled guest workers to make extra profits — banking on the fact that they will be too scared to fight for their rights. The federal government is driving the process and the Immigration Department doesn’t seem to care. If we are going to look after these people, and protect our own living standards, we have to stand side–by–side with these guest workers.”

“These workers were promised decent jobs and wages when they left the Philippines but after they were brought out to Australia they found they were being underpaid, abused and sometimes living in quite cramped conditions. At one point there were seven people living in a two bedroom flat in Narrabundah,” Gil Anderson said. “Some were sleeping on the floor. When these workers decided to come to the union to support them, as they stood up for their human rights, the boss threatened to put them on the next plane back to the Philippines.”

LHMU ACT has raised these matters directly with the Department of Immigration, the Department of Workplace Relations and the ACT Human Rights Office.

Several government departments are now investigating some six restaurants in Canberra with a view to possible prosecution over the treatment of these guest workers.

The union has received support from responsible employers, the community and local politicians like Senator Kate Lundy.

This article was compiled from the following reports: Workers Online, No. 299, 17 March 2006,; LHMU News, 17 March 2006, ‘Guest worker kidnapped for speaking out against exploitation: Govt responsible?’; LHMU News, 13 March 2006, ‘Canberra guest workers ‘escape from slavery’ hits Philippines TV’; LHMU News, 20 Feb. 2006, ‘Canberra hospitality union finds abused Filipino guest workers alternative jobs’.

More Information:

LHMU News Website:
Contact: Andrew Casey, LHMU
Phone: +61 2 8204 7206, FAX: +61 2 9281 4480