Wasantha Mudannayake gathered his Chinese workers together at Teys Australia’s Rockhampton abattoir and asked for a show of hands: “How many got the calls … how many got the emails?”
At least seven men reluctantly raised their hands.
Like hundreds of Chinese and other foreign workers in abattoirs around the country, some of Mr Mudannayake’s workers have been cold-called in recent weeks by officials from the Home Affairs Department. The calls are part of a highly sensitive investigation into alleged visa fraud and wrongdoing by the people recruiting staff to work in the nation’s meat processing industry.
Driving the Home Affairs action is a concern that foreign meatworkers might have been involved in a form of visa fraud in a process overseen by a network of middle men who, for a fee, promise a path to permanent residency. In the process, it has been alleged that false claims are made about the foreign workers’ English language skills and meat industry experience. Proficiency in English and three years’ workplace experience are the minimum requirements for a skilled migrant visa.
WeChat messages and emails exchanged by the workers reveal that the questioning by immigration officials goes like this: what was the name of the abattoir you worked at? How long were you there? How much did you get paid? By cash or deposit? Who was your supervisor? What was the name of the abattoir again?
Dozens of migrant workers unable to provide satisfactory answers have received “natural justice” letters, a forerunner to visa denial and deportation. Some have sniffed the wind and returned to their homeland, their hopes of gaining permanent residency in Australia dashed.
For the foreign workers receiving these calls, it’s a simple proposition: they believe they deserve a shot at a life here, having worked hard in a dirty and sometimes dangerous industry that few Australian people want to touch. These workers have put down roots with families and friends in regional towns and, in their view, earned the right to stay.
But as Australia’s agricultural sector, abattoirs included, cries out for such workers, Home Affairs has realised that some in the industry have posed a serious challenge to the integrity of Australia’s visa system. A spokesman for Home Affairs said it was committed to acting on alleged fraud, even though it is simultaneously making it a priority to process new visa applications.
A six-month investigation by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald has uncovered much more than just dubious recruiting. Industry insiders, documents and photographic evidence have shown how some labour hire operators have potentially corrupted the approvals system by paying bribes to some meat industry managers and, in a few extreme cases, providing them with alcohol and prostitutes as inducements. And some skills assessors entrusted by the government to certify applicants also have financial skin in the game of bringing labourers from overseas.
As the Australian government introduces a whole new route for migration – this time for unskilled workers (including meat processors) via its agricultural visa stream – it’s a lesson in what can, and too often does, go wrong.
Helping Home Affairs in its investigation is a colourful meat industry deal-maker, “Fast” Eddie Zhi, who made the news last year by helping Melbourne meat company Cedar Meats export a huge amount of mutton to China just before it became the scene of the city’s first major COVID-19 outbreak.
Mr Zhi has pointed the department to allegations that the visa applications of many foreign abattoir workers have been tainted with false information provided by the recruitment syndicates that have taken a crucial place in the industry in the past 15 years. He also claims to have supplied it with examples of false resumes that have been lodged with it.
Mr Zhi should know: a few years ago he helped supply Chinese workers to Australian meat company Southern Meats. Only after a bitter falling-out with his partner in that deal did the poacher turn gamekeeper.
Some recruitment syndicates, Mr Zhi said, have sub-agents in China who are on the lookout for candidates willing to pay for a chance at a new life in Australia.
“They can be a banker, they can be a teacher, they can be a welder. They can be anything except a meatworker. There isn’t anything in China such as a professional meatworker who can also speak English. That kind of thing doesn’t happen,” he said.
“So they send your resume, which is completely made up so all your previous work experience will be deleted and you end up becoming a meatworker from this or that abattoir … [for] at least three years. That’s common knowledge. Everybody is doing it.”
An Australian meat industry figure involved in aspects of the Home Affairs probe agreed some foreign workers had “never been anywhere near a f—ing abattoir”.
“The whole thing is a sham,” he said.
Chinese workers and meat company bosses say, on condition of anonymity, that recruitment syndicates have been known to put one good English-speaking worker in front of Australian company representatives for the purposes of the job interview, then substitute another for the trip to Australia.
The syndicates are well-funded and ruthless competitors, and they take a cut from every stage of a deal. As The Age and Herald revealed in May, some have charged individual workers $70,000 or more for a job. They often also charge workers for housing and rental of furniture.
The lure, simply, is Australia.
“Good 457 workers will get your [permanent residency] status, you will have five things in your hand: wife, kids, house, money, car,” wrote a recruitment syndicate member in a 2016 Facebook post on a private page aimed at attracting Chinese men to work at Warrnambool’s Midfield Meats. In a separate message sent on Chinese social media site WeChat, the recruiter advised Midfield’s new workers they would be expected to work “like beasts” to earn residency.
Mr Zhi said Australians needed to understand how desperate overseas workers were to escape poverty and build a new life. “They have a dream to realise. They want to buy a house, the kids have a good education and they want to send money back to repay the loan money they borrowed from relatives.”
Quid pro quo
What the workers pay the syndicates is small change compared with what Australian meat processing companies have been prepared to spend to obtain their workforce.
The biggest labour hire syndicate is headed by Chinese businessman Zu Neng “Scott” Shi and has earned $350 million by providing workers to 42 Australian abattoirs over nine years, according to Tax Office documents filed as part of Federal Court action.
The Tax Office is pursuing Mr Shi for allegedly deliberately shutting his companies once they got into financial difficulty only to reopen them under a different name – a manoeuvre known as phoenixing. Shi allegedly owes $163 million in unpaid taxes and last month lost a landmark case in the High Court as part of his fight to keep his offshore assets secret from the Tax Office.
The Shi syndicate has been allowed to continue operating in Australia for years after immigration officials first investigated it in 2009 for allegedly providing false documents and holding workers’ passports. Mr Shi has never been charged with any criminal offences. Most of its workers are recruited from China’s Fujian province. Other syndicates operate out of the cities of Qingdao and Weihai in Shandong province.
“Fast” Eddie Zhi’s information also highlighted another aspect of the industry: how meat industry players secure lucrative licences to export their products to China.
Some recruiters take Australian meat company bosses on trips to Beijing to meet influential Chinese customs officials who they say can grant the valuable licences. Mr Zhi went on one such trip with his former business partner two years ago.
One Australian meat company boss, who asked not to be named, said he left his meeting with a top Chinese customs official feeling he would need to pay a bribe to get the licence. He made no payment and his company is still without an export licence.
In return for securing the licence, or lifting a suspension on one, some recruiters ask the meat bosses to commit to exclusive labour supply contracts with them.
While in China, some Australian meat industry executives have been wooed with food, alcohol and prostitutes. The Age and Herald have seen photographic and video evidence of representatives from two Australian meat companies recorded in compromising situations in China.
Back in Australia, text message exchanges between a NSW meat company manager and a member of a recruitment syndicate also reveal labour hire contractors allegedly paying cash bribes to meat company managers to secure labour contracts. Those believed to have been involved have not been named.
In this case, thousands of dollars in cash in paper bags allegedly changed hands in meetings at a McDonald’s. A recruitment syndicate source familiar with the transactions said the pair used the code word “chocolate” in their communications to stand for cash.
Too close for comfort
To get accreditation to work in the Australian industry, foreign meatworkers must pass experience and language requirements of an industry body, the Meat Industry National Training Council, known as MINTRAC.
The Age and Herald have uncovered several examples of MINTRAC assessors having close ties to recruitment syndicates. In one case in Adelaide, the assessor was also a registered migration agent connected to a Vietnamese recruitment agency that supplies workers to big abattoirs in NSW, which would give him a personal financial interest in approving workers’ skills.
One abattoir that received workers from this agency was so concerned about their English proficiency that it had them retested in Sydney.
The relationship between another MINTRAC assessor and members of the Shi syndicate is also under scrutiny by Home Affairs officials, with a review of skills assessments he verified in China under way.
Emails seen by The Age and Herald show another prominent MINTRAC assessor described by Chinese recruiter Frank Liu as being in partnership with a labour agency supplying workers from Shandong province.
“At the same time, [a MINTRAC assessor we have chosen not to name for legal reasons] joined Steven/Kelvin with Qingdao agency recruiting for some other employers,” Mr Liu wrote in a 2018 email to a prospective business partner.
Mr Liu did not respond to questions. The Age and Herald do not suggest that Mr Liu is one of the recruiters involved in any form of misconduct.
MINTRAC chief executive Mick Crouch said he had met with Home Affairs twice in recent months to discuss a memorandum of understanding to drive better ethics and standards in the assessment process. Mr Crouch said assessors did not have to declare any conflicts of interest or relationships that might impact the independence of their foreign worker assessments.
“We are actively working on ways to make this more bulletproof,” he said.
In November last year, the general manager of Warrnambool’s Midfield Meats, Dean McKenna, met with a small delegation of his more than 100 Chinese workers and a representative of the Shi syndicate to try to reassure them about their visa problems.
“With your visa guys, I need to explain to you we are talking to the politicians nearly every week, right?” Mr McKenna says on audio of the meeting, obtained by The Age and Herald.
Midfield has been waiting more than two years for Home Affairs to approve a labour agreement that will allow it to sponsor people for permanent residency. Mr McKenna’s two political contacts were his local member for Wannon and then federal education minister Dan Tehan, and Trade Minister and then acting immigration minister Alan Tudge.
Mr Tudge has previously confirmed attending a meeting while acting immigration minister that was organised by Mr Tehan to discuss visa issues affecting a meat processing business in his electorate. Mr Tehan and Mr McKenna’s father, Midfield Meats owner Colin McKenna, previously part-owned a racing thoroughbred called Spin the Bottle.
But despite his political connections, Mr McKenna warned his Chinese workers not to expect any imminent action on permanent residency, even though nearly all of them had served the three years that the meat company and recruitment syndicate had promised would earn them sponsorship.
“We’ve pushed, we’ve pushed. I’ve not threatened, but I’ve been very aggressive towards the political leaders … we’ve threatened to shut the business down, everything … but I’ll be honest with you, it’s a f—ing nightmare,” Mr McKenna said.
He could not put in writing what he had discussed with the ministers, he told his workers, because “if that got back to the ministers, through the lawyers or someone … the ministers would be in a lot of trouble”. Mr McKenna tried to reassure the workers by saying the politicians had told him things would be all right in time.
A few weeks after this meeting, tensions at Midfield spilled over publicly when the Chinese workers refused to enter the abattoir after their colleague, Benson Wang, ended up in hospital following a workplace fight with his Australian supervisor.
The stand-off resulted in extensive media coverage and piqued the interest of Australian Border Force officials in Melbourne, helping trigger wider scrutiny of foreign worker visa applications in the nation’s meat processing industry.
There is no suggestion that Mr McKenna, or any other abattoir bosses named in this article, had any knowledge of or involvement in recruiters’ misconduct.
Teys Australia, which operates six abattoirs across three states, has also been lobbying politicians about the visa issues affecting its foreign workers. Executive chairman Brad Teys said he had recently engaged in “a lot of agitation through political channels” on behalf of the 400 Chinese workers his company employed, including 152 at Rockhampton.
“If I lost the 150 out of Rocky I’d have to shut it. That’s 5000 cattle a week out of the central Queensland region. The flow-on effect would be enormous,” Mr Teys said.
He said some of the information Home Affairs was seeking from the workers, such as tax records, was proving extremely difficult to provide.
“We can’t provide the verification you’re looking for because it doesn’t exist,” he said, adding that 33 Chinese workers in Rockhampton had received natural justice letters from Home Affairs, seven had their visa applications rejected and two had permanent residency granted.
Mr Teys said he was aware of concerns of falsified information being included in some foreign meatworker visa applications. But he was confident in his company’s recruitment processes.
He said senior Teys staff accompanied recruitment agent Frank Liu in China to inspect and select candidates. Mr Liu is the overseas recruitment manager for the state-owned China Shenyang International Economic & Technique Co-operate Corporation.
Teys has previously obtained workers from the Shi syndicate but Mr Teys said the company had “avoided him like the plague” for many years.
Both Teys and Midfield have promised their foreign workers that visa refusals would be challenged in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Two other meat processing companies, EC Throsby and Greenham & Sons, earlier this year publicly spoke of their frustrations with the speed of foreign worker visa approvals.
Up at Rockhampton, Mr Mudannayake, a meat industry veteran who manages the abattoir, told his anxious workers the intensity of the visa questioning was unlike anything he had seen before.
“Take this very seriously, guys. Not Rockhampton, all over Australia it’s happening. Mainly Chinese … they are looking at the people who have the PR [permanent residency] too. It’s pretty serious stuff. Here in Australia as well as in China.
“They are checking everything.”
Know more about fraud or exploitation in the meat industry? Contact Richard Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org
TOMORROW: ‘We are poor people’: A meatworker’s story
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