Home Affairs to name and shame businesses exploiting migrant workers

Immigration minister Andrew Giles. The minister for immigration and multicultural affairs has warned of a government crackdown on migrant worker exploitation. In a speech delivered to a Law Council of Australia conference in Melbourne, Giles said exploitation of migrants was harming all workers.

The minister for immigration and multicultural affairs has warned of a government crackdown on migrant worker exploitation.

In a speech delivered to a Law Council of Australia conference in Melbourne, Giles said exploitation of migrants was harming all workers.

“When those who are vulnerable have their wages stolen from them or worse, it hurts all of us. Exploitation drives down wages and conditions for everyone, regardless of where you are born,” he said.

“It is to our great shame that in the land of the ‘fair go’, this behaviour has been tolerated for far too long.

“It has long been our view that these two areas of policy — workplace relations and immigration — need to work together to address the issue of temporary migrant worker exploitation.”

The government’s recent industrial relations reforms have granted powers to the government to address the recommendations of the Migrant Workers Taskforce and other loopholes in the enforcement regime.

These include powers to ban workers from sponsoring visas or employing migrant workers at all, and more compliance officers to enforce the regime.

“From July, I will be writing to employers who are liable for prohibition and asking why they should not be prohibited from hiring workers on temporary visas,” said Giles.

“This will include any employer found to have exploited migrant workers in a Federal Court decision under the Fair Work Act as well as those employers who have been subject to a bar due to a breach of the sponsorship obligations in the migration regulations.

“Employers subject to a prohibition notice will be named on the Department of Home Affairs website and this will be communicated widely.”

Giles spruiked the government’s changes to enforcement as a departure for the previous government. Funding in the last budget provided for an additional 500 border enforcement officers, and upgrades to Border Force’s ICT systems.

“This brings some core Australian Border Force capabilities back into the department, and it supports an ongoing focus on compliance and enforcement in immigration,” he said.

While some of the best-publicised examples of foreign worker exploitation have occurred in the farming sector, multinationals like 7-Eleven have been caught stealing wages from their workforce too.

Uncovered in 2015, the 7-Eleven case led to the Migrant Workers Taskforce, chaired by Professor Allan Fels and Dr David Cousins. Their damning report, handed to the government in 2019 showed visa and industrial relations regulations were not up to the job of preventing the kinds of exploitation that were rife in Australian workplaces.

The final report made 22 recommendations and suggested there is no reasonable defence for underpaying workers.

“Wage exploitation of temporary migrants offends our national values of fairness. It harms not only the employees involved but also the businesses which do the right thing,” they wrote.

“The problem of wage underpayment is widespread and has become more entrenched over time. The most comprehensive academic survey to date on the issue suggests as many as 50 per cent of temporary migrant workers may be being underpaid in their employment.

“It has potential to undermine our national reputation as a place for international students to undertake their studies and may discourage working holidaymakers from filling essential gaps in the agricultural workforce. This problem has persisted for too long and it needs concerted action to overcome it.”

Migrant workers have an understandable fear of speaking out about their exploitation, given their visas may be tied to their employer, or include conditions they have violated, like limits on working hours.

The government has proposed two pilot programs to allay these fears.

The first introduces a formal protection against visa cancellation, so whistleblowers cannot have their visas cancelled as a consequence of reporting wrongdoing.

A second pilot will test the concept of a workplace justice visa, designed to enable temporary migrants to remain in Australia while they seek resolution to a workplace dispute.

“These pilots will not be work-arounds for people simply seeking to extend their stay in Australia. Eligibility criteria will be designed in a manner to promote visa integrity while also acknowledging exploitation is a scourge in the Australian labour market and must be addressed,” Giles said.

“Instead, the pilots will promote the ability for people to speak up by removing their fear of having their visa cancelled if they have breached a visa condition related to their work – if they were forced to breach that condition by an employer chasing profit at the expense of treating people lawfully.

“Drawing on the 7-Eleven example, an international student who worked in excess of 40 hours (now 48 hours) in a fortnight – even under duress from their employer – has breached a visa condition and can have their visa cancelled.”

To Giles, the issue of migration and labour exploitation are intertwined, but not in the way people advocating for slower migration think.

Economist David Card won a Nobel Prize in economics for finding ways of measuring the effects of migration on the labour market, finding categorically migrants do not take jobs from domestic workers in his native Canada.

Giles echoed this in his speech but added there were indirect negative effects of migration on workers due to the fact they have been allowed to be exploited. In essence, if businesses continue to be allowed to underpay someone because they are a migrant, there is little incentive for them to hire anyone on a living wage.

“It is critical that workplace laws provide the same entitlements and protections for all workers, regardless of their immigration status; and that immigration policies address both the misuse of migration rules to exploit temporary migrants and migration-related barriers to resolving workplace exploitation,” said Giles.

“When all Australians see the result of visa rules pushing people into vulnerable situations and ambivalence to making things right, our shared purpose is eroded. The social licence for our diverse community is damaged.

“We must work together to ensure the social licence remains robust, including the appropriate respect for the institutions which make Australia such a great country, such as the rule of law.”


Immigration minister Andrew Giles.
Immigration minister Andrew Giles. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)


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