Guest worker visas are a touchy topic at the moment. A fortnight ago, Lateline brought us the story of ABC Tissues in Sydney, where unions claim poorly-trained and low paid Chinese workers are being used to build a giant tissue-making machine.

The same story turned up in the Fin yesterday, where Marcus Priest reported:

The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union has raised concerns about the use of 24 unskilled Chinese workers – who do not speak English and use an interpreter – at ABC Tissues in Weatherill Park to install the $60 million machine.

It is understood from workers on-site that local companies were available to do the work and had already installed similar machines for Visy and Amcor, and had just finished installing one in Queensland… Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said yesterday her department, in conjunction with the Office of Workplace Services, was investigating the matter. She said immigration officials visited ABC on August 28 last year as part of the monitoring program for 457 visas and found payment irregularities to visa holders…

The PM copped a question on the matter in Parliament. “I am informed that these allegations are being investigated jointly by the Department of Immigration and the relevant state and federal agencies”, he said – and then volunteered this information:

There was some suggestion in the article and perhaps in some commentary that there had been some approach by way of representations by the Attorney-General to the minister to intervene. Let me say at no time did the Attorney-General make representations or discuss this case with the minister or the Department of Immigration. In no way did he try to influence the process. In other words, the allegations are being taken seriously and obviously the outcome of that investigation will be made known. If something wrong has happened, sanctions will be applied. If something wrong has not happened, then no sanctions should be applied. What fairer, more transparent, more decent system could you possibly have?

The PM often doesn’t volunteer much information in his replies to Opposition questions, so why did he bring the name of the Attorney-General and former Immigration Minister into play? It suddenly added a whole new dimension to the story. Neither Lateline nor the Fin report had mentioned our cadaverous first law officer. Priest did today, though:

The AFR has learned that on September 30 last year Mr Ruddock attended a foundation-laying ceremony at ABC Tissues in Weatherill Park, one month after immigration officials visited the site and found irregularities in the payment of workers. Also at the ceremony was David MacLeod, who is the NSW state manager of the migration assistance scheme…

But there was already a buzz in Canberra corridors last night. Why had the PM mentioned the Attorney-General’s name?

Ruddock is an assiduous chaser of donations, some said. True. And those activities have been a cause of controversy before. Watch this space.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey