If the COVID years have taught us anything about migration, it is that Australia depends on it. About 7% of our workforce holds a temporary visa. When many international students, backpackers and other temporary visa holders suddenly left during COVID, the ensuing staff shortages revealed how vital these workers are to the Australian workforce.
Responding to industry demands for workers, a new agriculture visa was created, Labor has promised an extended Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme, and international students were given unlimited work rights.
But the government elected on May 21 will inherit Australia’s dark legacy of entrenched wage theft among migrant workers.
A recent open letter signed by 14 legal service providers, churches and other advocacy organisations across Australia has called on the government to enact three key reforms to address theft of migrant workers’ wages:
enable migrant workers to act against exploitative employers by providing effective visa protections to whistle-blowers who report exploitation to the Fair Work Ombudsman or make claims through the courts.
implement an efficient, accessible, and inexpensive claims process for workers to promptly recover their wages and entitlements; and
Theft of migrant workers’ wages is rampant
One in four earned less than half the minimum casual hourly wage. Nine in ten suffered wage theft in silence and took no action. Nine in ten believed many or most other migrant workers were underpaid.
Allowed to continue
Exploitation flourishes because regulators do not routinely detect or punish labour law noncompliance. Most workers cannot pursue their employer directly because the system is stacked against them at every stage of the wage claim process.
The Employment Rights Legal Service (ERLS), which helps exploited migrant workers in NSW and coordinated the open letter, has said many migrant workers don’t complain because they fear losing their visa or job. For many, their fear is well-founded. One ERLS client, Sofia, told them:
I might quit and try and recover my wages and my power in the future but for now, my visa is my main concern and I just want to leave this stress behind me.
Sofia had submitted to her employer’s unlawful demands to repay part of her wages, and unwittingly committed a migration offence. This could result in cancellation of her visa if brought to the immigration department’s attention.
Another international student client, a cleaner, put it:
My visa is my main concern: 100%. I’m not going to risk my visa to chase my wages if there is only a chance or a hope that the government will protect me.
Many businesses remain unconvinced exploitative treatment will be meaningfully penalised.Shutterstock
Seizing the moment
The next government needs to make a choice.
Its first option is to seize the moment while there are still relatively low numbers of migrant workers in Australia to fix the parts of the system that enable wage theft to flourish.
Meaningful reform would help repair the damage caused by Australia’s treatment of migrant workers during COVID by clearly signalling that migrant workers are valued members of the Australian community and workforce.
The second option is to continue tinkering around the edges of the problem, and consciously bring hundreds of thousands of young migrants into exploitative underpaid jobs they will likely endure in silence.
If the government opts to implement meaningful reform, it must accept that wage theft among migrant workers is systemic and not the exceptional misconduct of a few bad apple employers.
Businesses that do the right thing are forced to compete with the countless others that comfortably adopt wage theft as a business model, knowing they will evade detection or enjoy impunity.
The government must confront the reality that migrant workers cannot safely report exploitation, and enforcement mechanisms are inadequate.
Curbing forced labour and modern slavery
It is time for an Australian government to set its sights higher and adopt an evidence-based and systemic approach to tackling migrant exploitation, learning from approaches that are working in other countries.
If Australia is genuinely committed to ensuring labour compliance and curbing forced labour and modern slavery, it cannot afford to miss this opportunity.
- ^ 7% of our workforce (grattan.edu.au)
- ^ temporary visa holders (static1.squarespace.com)
- ^ agriculture visa (www.dfat.gov.au)
- ^ Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme (www.alp.org.au)
- ^ unlimited work rights (immi.homeaffairs.gov.au)
- ^ open letter (bit.ly)
- ^ Fair Entitlements Guarantee (extranet.employment.gov.au)
- ^ Closing the loophole: a minimum wage for Australia's farm workers is long overdue (theconversation.com)
- ^ 2016 (www.migrantjustice.org)
- ^ 2019 (www.migrantjustice.org)
- ^ March 2022 Senate Committee (parlinfo.aph.gov.au)
- ^ system is stacked against them (www.ihrb.org)
- ^ Employment Rights Legal Service (www.erls.org.au)
- ^ agreement with the immigration department (immi.homeaffairs.gov.au)
- ^ not assured of protection (www.migrantjustice.org)
- ^ increasing numbers (independentaustralia.net)
- ^ Pacific (anthonyalbanese.com.au)
- ^ Southest Asia (www.dfat.gov.au)
- ^ increasing funding for the Fair Work Ombudsman (www.ag.gov.au)
- ^ recommendations (www.ag.gov.au)
- ^ support for all the recommendations (www.ag.gov.au)
- ^ many parliamentary inquiries (www.aph.gov.au)
- ^ approaches that are working in other countries (www.migrantjustice.org)
- ^ All these celebrity restaurant wage-theft scandals point to an industry norm (theconversation.com)
Authors: Laurie Berg, Associate Professor, University of Technology Sydney