Government Submission Highlights Ongoing Foreign Worker Exploitation

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The exploitation occurring within the short-term work visas regime has been highlighted this week by a whole-of-government submission to a Senate Inquiry looking into widespread problems with the politically hot 457 work visa program.

While the government was keen to reiterate the importance of the migrant work program the submission revealed that in the last two years almost a third of the 4,000 employers monitored were found to be in breach of their obligations.

Despite the high rates of non-compliance amongst employers using short-term workers – mostly skilled employees on 457 visas – just 40 infringement notices were issued.

Among the 1,184 employers who breached their obligations, 609 were sanctioned by cancellation and/or barring the sponsor from using the 457 visa program. In 575 cases the government issued formal warnings.

The submission represented seven different agencies and focused primarily on 457 visas, which allow skilled migrant workers to be sponsored by an employer subject to certain requirements.

One of those requirements is that a foreign worker’s wages and conditions should be in line with Australian standards, but recently a rash of exploitation has renewed concerns that that’s not always the reality.

As New Matilda reported at the beginning of this year a Taiwanese labor-hire company, Chia Tung Development Corporation, was exposed for badly abusing workers.

A Fair Work investigation subsequently found a total of 43 Chinese and Filipino workers were underpaid by more than $800,000, had money illegally deducted from their pay, and were forced to live in cramped conditions with one five-bedroom house in Nowra being used to accommodate more than 30 people.

In Senate Estimates last week Labor backbencher Doug Cameron labelled the Chia Tung incident “one of the most egregious breaches of workplace law that I have seen for many years” and there are growing concerns that this sort of exploitation could be much more common than assumed.

While the government’s submission focused on 457 visas, the reality is the worst exploitation is occurring in unskilled visa categories such as 416 working holiday visas.

Last month the ABC revealed that many 416 visa workers – typically backpackers and international students – are suffering in ‘slave like’ conditions on the fruit harvest trail.

A screen cap from a Four Corner's expose, which revealed widespread exploitation of foreign workers.

Workers are being threatened, underpaid and sometimes unpaid, sexually exploited and forced to work gruelling hours in very poor conditions.

In the wake of the ABC revelations the National Union of Workers’ National Secretary, Tim Kennedy, called on government to introduce a licensing system for the labor hire contractors who operate as middle-men, often skimming wages off workers’ pay. 

In her submission to the inquiry Dr Joanna Howes, an Adelaide University academic specialising in short term work visas, called on the government to “propose a new low skill work visa to address the fact that a large amount of unskilled work is performed by migrant workers that is not subject to the same regulations as skilled migrant work”.

There is broad agreement that unskilled short-term workers are the most at risk, but it’s increasingly clear that problems within the 457 visa program are also widespread.

In last week’s Estimates, the Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James conceded that there are concerns with 20 per cent of 457 visa holders that the worker is not receiving their entitled pay, or are working in a job description that’s not covered by their visa.

On top of that, in 560 cases examined between October 2014 and January 2015 the Ombudsman “was unable to locate the employers of 61 workers and reported that employers were unable to provide information on 10 workers”.

As the regime’s shortcomings continue to surface, the government has been forced to act to increase regulation of the system which it has consistently defended.

Last week the Assistant Minister for Immigration, Michaelia Cash, convened a taskforce which she has promised will be “an absolute game changer”.

According to Cash, the taskforce “will significantly increase the [government’s] ability to identify and bring to justice unscrupulous individuals abusing not only the 457 program but the entire temporary visa system”.

But advocacy groups have been at pains to point out that the jump between monitoring and detecting non-compliance and effective enforcement is where the system falls down.

Cash has previously defended the government’s regulation, arguing that the ombudsman has dealt with over 6,000 requests for assistance from visa holders and provided advice and assistance to over 5,000 foreign workers and visa-holders.

Additionally, more than $4 million in outstanding wages and entitlements has been recovered by a new special “Overseas Workers’ Team. Yet the exploitation continues.

The figures highlight the extent of the problem, but in the more than 1,000 employers who have been found to be in breach of their obligations in the last two years, only one has been prosecuted.

Even Chia Tung, which freely admitted to a range of illegal and exploitative practices when it entered an enforceable undertaking with Fair Work last month, has effectively gone unpunished because it is really only required to pay back what it had illegally withheld in the first place.

The government announced last week that it will exhume the Ministerial Advisory Council on Skilled Migration, which it scrapped. But there are concerns that where there had been three unionists on the council under Labor, the government has appointed only one, Ged Kearney, the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

“While I am yet to see the terms of reference for the Council, it is clear the temporary visa system is broken and I will be pushing for a high level, strategic approach to skilled migration that doesn’t undermine local jobs or allow the exploitation of foreign workers,” Kearney said. 

New Matilda

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