They were housed three to a room, with 29 men crammed into one property with one bathroom in Worrigee on the NSW south coast. Their clothes were hung off hooks on the wall; they slept on mattresses on the floor and worked 10 to 11 hour shifts at the Manildra Ethanol Plant in Bomaderry. Once deductions were made for accommodation, meals and travel, some of them earned as little as $4 an hour.

These are the conditions that, in January, CFMEU organisers found 29 Filipino and Chinese workers living and working under. The workers were brought to Bomaderry on temporary work visas.

“It was our members themselves who blew the whistle on it”, Michael O’Connor, CFMEU national secretary told independent news outlet New Matilda shortly after the discovery was made. He described Manildra’s arrangements as “a deliberately complicated web of companies across the country set up to hide what is outrageous exploitation of vulnerable workers”.

Once that whistle was blown, the workers and the union had to move fast as the company scrambled to push the men out of the country, calling in the police to intimidate them and threaten union organisers with trespass charges.

After talking to the Bomaderry workers, CFMEU organisers quickly discovered a string of similar cases in Manildra Group’s other sites. Speaking recently to Red Flag, Dave Kelly, one of the organisers involved, describes the events: “We had the coppers called on us and during that process we heard about the workers at a place called Narrabri.”

In Narrabri, the cops were once again called to usher the workers off-site and out of their accommodation. The company moved the workers to a hotel away from the site with plans to whisk them out of the country.

Fortunately a Filipino woman who worked at the hotel spoke with the workers and contacted the union. It got them to Sydney and put them up in a hotel while their case was taken to the Ombudsman. The union’s efforts eventually recovered $873,000 of their unpaid wages. Dave Kelly says it’s not good enough.

“In just three or four months they were underpaid by nearly a million dollars. All that’s really happened is the company has been forced to pay what the workers were already entitled to. The union isn’t satisfied because the company itself wasn’t prosecuted.”

For their troubles, the two organisers involved in uncovering the company’s practices were hauled before Fair Work Building and Construction and threatened with personal fines and possible jail time for entering Manildra sites.

Kelly says he isn’t surprised by the hypocrisy, nor is he deterred. “We’ve been living under these threats since the Howard era. I’d do it again anyway. We didn’t break any laws, it’s John Howard’s mate who owns Manildra who should be the one facing the courts.”