GETTING WORK DOWN UNDER © Duncan Graham 2006
When M Agung Susetyo opened his e-mail in Surabaya the message seemed incredible; the long-time jobless father of one had been offered high-pay work in Australia.
But this was no junk-mail scam; the message came from a former work supervisor when Susetyo was a TKI (Tenaga Kerja Indonesia), a blue-collar worker who had found employment overseas.
For three years Susetyo worked in a Brunei abattoir killing and processing cattle imported from Australia. The money he earned was sent back to his family in Jombang and helped educate his younger sister.
When the meat works closed he had to return to East Java and join the jobless. His one-time boss went back to Australia, but didn’t forget Susetyo.
The practice of exporting Indonesian labor and remitting salaries has been long established. More than 3.5 million are working overseas. Officially 12 per cent of the Indonesian workforce is unemployed, but NGOs claim the figure is much higher with millions underemployed.
Indonesian construction workers are building high rises in Malaysia and the Middle East. Maids in those countries, plus Singapore and Hong Kong are keeping homes and babies clean. TKI in Brunei, South Korea and Taiwan are doing the jobs locals shun.
But not in Australia, despite that country suffering a chronic labor shortage in many trades, particularly metalwork, hospitality, nursing and farming. Till now.
Earlier this year Australian Prime Minister John Howard rejected the idea of guest workers and knocked back pleas from Pacific Island governments to take their citizens. However since last July about 30,000 foreigners have quietly and legally entered the country’s workforce.
They’ve been using a little known Temporary Business (Long Stay) visa, known in the bureaucracy as a ‘457 visa’.
Under this scheme approved businesses that can prove they’re unable to find Australian staff are allowed to sponsor qualified overseas workers in good health and with no police record. The jobs offered must be on a list of ‘gazetted occupations’.
These cover managers, administrators, professionals and tradespersons. These headings break down to jobs as diverse as teachers, metallurgists, stage directors, confectioners and gardeners. More than 500 are listed.
Holders of ‘457 visas’ can stay for up to four years. After 30 months they have the chance to apply for permanent residency. In some cases they can bring their spouses and dependents who may also work and study.
However if the company closes or the worker isn’t satisfactory he or she has to return to their homeland.
Sponsor companies in the cities have to pay overseas workers AUD $39,000 a year (about Rp 24 million a month) but those in regional areas can get dispensation to pay lower rates.
Mike Smith, director of overseas employment agency YWA Global told The Jakarta Post that his company recruited heavily from the Philippines where many workers spoke English.
Only a few had come from Indonesia to work as halal slaughter men killing sheep and cattle for Muslim consumers. Vietnam and China were other popular sources for labor.
“With our company, recruitment costs including visas and air fares, are paid by the employer,” he said. “These can be up to AUD $8,000 (Rp 60 million) but the employers are desperate – they just can’t get staff.
“They get paid and treated the same as Australian employees. There’s no exploitation.” Smith’s agency is based in Western Australia, a state with less than four per cent of the workforce unemployed.
Labor unions in Australia have been wary of the scheme and claim the government should be doing more to train unemployed Australians. Some politicians have suggested that not all workers will voluntarily return home if their visas are cancelled.
But according to Immigration Department statistics Indonesia does not rank among the top ten countries whose residents overstay. And fears that Australia’s surging economy will falter without more workers have smothered most concerns.
Smith said the overseas workers had a good record of attendance and a strong work ethic. They had to pay tax and their own health insurance, but were covered by worker’s compensation for accidents on the job. Social welfare programs, like unemployment benefits and pensions, are not available to ‘457 visa’ holders.
“I don’t like the term ‘guest workers’. It gives the wrong impression,” Smith said. “Most of the people we bring here eventually want to become Australian citizens. I’ve been told that the labor shortages in Australia will continue for the next ten years.”
(More details on the 457 visas can be found at http://www.immi.gov.au )
(First published in The Jakarta Post 21 January 2006)