Tougher penalties for employers to protect foreign workers
The federal government is moving to protect foreign workers and new migrants who are at risk of exploitation by bringing in new laws making it a criminal offence to coerce a person into breaching their visa conditions.
New laws to protect foreign workers
Employers or agents who coerce migrants or foreign workers into breaching their visa conditions could face jail time, the federal government has announced. (Please see Albanese Government to tackle worker exploitation, 5 June 2023.)
Businesses that exploit migrants and those on working visas would be barred from employing additional overseas workers under plans to overhaul the temporary visa system.
Immigration Minister Andrew Giles said section 235 of the Migration Act actively deters people from reporting exploitative behaviour and will be repealed.
Mr Giles said: “There is a crisis of exploitation, with up to one in six recent migrants paid less than the minimum wage. When migrant workers are being underpaid – it hurts all of us, driving wages and conditions down for everyone. These reforms will help workers speak up and target those employers who do the wrong thing.”
Employer responsibilities towards foreign workers
Employers, including those who hire backpackers to pick fruit and do other work, should ensure they comply with current laws before these new penalties pass through parliament.
Many farmers obtain foreign workers through employment agents, but there are media reports of these agents exploiting the workers, withholding passports and underpaying them.
Just one convenience store chain was reported to have underpaid $173 million to its employees, many of them international students – with some earning just $10 per hour. (Please see Years after 7-Eleven pay rorting revealed, justice finally done, The Age, 11 April 2022.)
Employers have an obligation to ensure that foreign and migrant workers have the appropriate visa and that they receive the correct payments and benefits under relevant awards.
Exploitation of foreign workers by some employers
A government review of the migration program found there was clear evidence of systemic exploitation and a risk of creating a perpetual underclass of underpaid workers on visas. (Please see Report of the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce, Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, 4 August 2022.)
A recent study by the Grattan Institute found that recent migrants and foreign workers in Australia are twice as likely as long-term residents to be underpaid, and up to 16 per cent of recent migrants are paid less than the national minimum wage, compared to nine per cent of all Australian workers. (Please see Short-changed: How to stop the exploitation of migrant workers in Australia, May 2023.)
The study found that many temporary visa holders put up with mistreatment because they fear that if they speak up their visa will be cancelled, or they will lose their pathway to permanent residency in Australia.
The Grattan Institute report found the Fair Work Ombudsman fined employers just $4 million in penalties in 2021-22, whereas the tax office imposed a total $3 billion in penalties on taxpayers. In the same period businesses paid $232 million in penalties for breaches of competition and consumer law.
The government plans to introduce the changes and new penalties for worker exploitation to parliament in mid-2023.