A $60 million building project supported by the NSW Labor Government and the Howard – Vaile Liberal-National Coalition and employing overseas workers on questionable temporary work visas has been halted after receiving 39 infringement notices.

The workers are some of the 40,000 expected to arrive in Australia this year on the so called business visas designed for employers who cannot procure local workers with special skills. It has been reported that those at the Wetherill Park Building Site, where ABC Tissues in constructing a tissue paper mill and plant, failed to meet the most basic criteria for eligibility for the so called 457 visas. It is believed up to at least August 4, 2006 these workers were being paid in China which is in breach of their visa conditions, by a Chinese Government owned company acting as a labour hire firm.

ABC Tissues is owned by Henry Ngai, who had a magnetic high level show of support when construction commenced last year, with the Federal Attorney General Philip Ruddock, participating in the sod-turning ceremony.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) says that between the foreign workers arrival in February and May 2006, they were not covered by worker’s compensation which is a further breach of regulations. Workers on 457 visas should be skilled and duly fully qualified for the work they have agreed to undertake, and be prepared to fulfil our country’s safety laws. But at the ABC Tissues site there were forklift drivers and electricians without appropriate licences.

The site was closed by ABC Tissues in the third week of August 2006 after a major clash with the worker’s Union and an investigation by Work Cover. It was reported not one of the Chinese workers could speak English, follow emergency procedures or read safety signs.

The majority had to be trained to operate the most menial tasks. An Australian tradesman on site said he was flabbergasted to witness one of the guest workers make a non – compliant Chinese power tool fit a socket by stripping the cord and inserting naked wires directly into the plug.

At a meeting on August 4, ABC Tissues general manager, Ming Ly, explained to a group of union officials and senior ABC managers that the workers were being paid in China rather than in Australia . Mr. Ly was unable to nominate a bank account or how much his foreign workers were being paid or confirm that superannuation was being paid.

ABC Tissues is one of the leading suppliers of tissues and toilet paper in Australia , with factories in Sydney , Brisbane and New Zealand with total revenues of more than $19 million last year. Approximately 50 Chinese workers were hired by a Chinese Government owned business, the Hunan Industrial Equipment Installation Company, which is supplying labour to an Italian company, A. Celli, who has the contract to build and install the mill for ABC tissues.

The Project has been at the centre of tensions since May between ABC Tissues, the two overseas contractors, and the worker’s union regarding the Chinese workers.

Prime Minister John Howard in June told Federal Parliament that Mr. Ruddock had played no part in the Department of Immigration’s decision not to act on claims that immigration rules had been breached at the site. It is unclear, if anyone had made such an allegation.

The Prime Minister said the Department of Immigration was investigating the site, but workers and union officials said they have seen no evidence of any investigation.

Mr. Ruddock and the State Manager of the Department of Immigration’s Migration Assistance Scheme, David MacLeod, was present at the sod turning ceremony in September 2005. A spokesman for Mr. Ruddock said he had attended due to his close relations with the Chinese community. Mr. Ngai is noted for his generous charity donations and “good relations with all tiers of Government.”

In the past year, Mr. Ngai has been thanked for many donations to various causes by the NSW Unity MP, Peter Wong and the Queensland Labor (ALP) Premier, Peter Beattie. In 2005, Mr. Ngai also accompanied the Mayor of Fairfield, Nick Lalich, and other Councillors and staff to Shantou in China ’s south to help forge a sister-City relationship, contributing $10,000 to their costs.

This mill project has been backed by the NSW Government’s major projects unit, which assists business development that benefit the state by providing employment that appears to point to foreign workers being paid slave wages. Is it possible that the Howard Government’s changes to the Industrial Relations Laws such as Work Choices is to accommodate Foreign Slave Labour.

Australian workers at the site were dumbfounded when the Chinese workers arrived unannounced in February. They were housed nearby and driven to work each morning by bus, each wearing matching overalls and shiny new red helmets.

One local worker reported that shortly after they arrived the new workers opened shipping containers stored on-site and unloaded masses of equipment shipped from China , including thousands of boxes of new tools, scaffolding, ladders and safety equipment that did not meet Australian safety specifications. Another told how he saw a Chinese worker swaying high in the air as he welded a pipe he was tied to, as it dangled from a crane.

“We’d see people on the roof, 20 metres in the air and you couldn’t even yell at them to get friggin down,” he said. One local worker said he feared someone had died when he came across a group standing around a man prostrate on the ground. In fact the man was using a pipe to blow dust form a newly frilled hole. “It was straight out of the 1930’s.” Despite the evidence of breaches of workplace and immigration regulations, workers on site said they had been told by management that a further 21 visas for overseas workers had been approved.

The Australian workers said it was impossible to maintain a safe site with 2 workforces labouring side-by-side being unable to communicate. They were also angered that the day the Chinese workers arrived, negotiations with local subcontractors to work on the mill’s installation ended.

The State Secretary of the union, Paul Bastian, said it was absurd that in the eyes of the Department of Immigration the Chinese workers were in Australia plugging a skills gap, while Work Cover was not satisfied they were safe to work unsupervised. He said the site revealed how poorly policed the 457 program is.

A spokesman for Work Cover said the agency was investigating the insurance and the worker’s compensation situation on the site, but was unable to say how they could prosecute a foreign company in the event it broke the law.

The Department of Immigration refuses to discuss specific cases. Why?