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Migrant workers exploited, Senate hears

4 March 20220 comments

Some foreign skilled workers in Australia are being paid as little as $40 a day, putting them well under the poverty line, a Senate inquiry has heard.

A Senate committee examining new laws to protect migrant workers from exploitation was told of two Filipino and two Thai workers were engaged on a solar farm construction project outside of the north Queensland city of Townsville in 2018.

According to a submission by the Electrical Trades Union, the workers were being paid just $40 a day, plus a $42 allowance for food and accommodation under subclass 400 ‘short-stay specialist’ visa arrangements. 

The ETU claimed its members raised money to support the workers. 

The union claimed the specialised work the migrants were hired to do included licenced electrical work but their skills and qualifications were never assessed.

The migrants’ employer, through lawyers, said it had done nothing illegal and was under no obligation to pay, but settled the matter by increasing the wages and making back-payments.

The union told the inquiry the proposed new laws included “zero provisions to prevent a recurrence of these events and no powers to take action against an employer should it occur again”.

“The current treatment of visa workers is a national embarrassment,” the ETU said.

The new bill, introduced to parliament in November, establishes new criminal offences and civil penalties for “coercing or exerting undue influence or pressure on a non-citizen to accept or agree to certain work arrangements”.

It also sets up a power to ban, for a specified period of time, employers who are subject to a sanction from allowing additional non-citizens to begin work.

The exploitation of migrant and refugee workers in Melbourne is widespread and systemic, according to a recent report.

The Western Community Legal Centre’s (WCLC) investigation into labour rorting has found that the underpayment of workers new to Australia could amount to millions of dollars.

The centre carried out 39 focus groups and received 105 surveys finding that 52 per cent of survey respondents said that underpayments were common or that they or someone they knew was not paid enough.

The surveys found 38 per cent of respondents indicated that not being paid regularly was common for newly arrived or refugee communities, or that they or someone they knew experienced this.

More than a third, or 36 per cent, reported it was common to come in early or stay late at work without getting paid, and exactly a third reported it was common to miss out on superannuation entitlements.

And almost half (47 per cent) of respondents reported that discrimination at work was common.

The WCLC’s Employment Legal Service (ELS) reported recovering or obtaining orders for over $120,000 in unpaid entitlements and over $125,000 in compensation for unlawful termination.

The report’s author Catherine Hemingway said although employment is widely regarded as the most crucial step for successful settlement in a new country, recently arrived migrant and refugee workers face many barriers.

“Finding employment is difficult. For those who do find work, exploitation is widespread,” Ms Hemingway said.

“Exploited workers are often not aware of their rights, and rarely access help to enforce the law.

“The extent of the problem is shocking. We come across many stories of workers being underpaid or not paid at all. In one case a man was being paid just $8 an hour and in another two workers were being paid one wage between them.”

Migrant Workers’ Centre CEO Matt Kunkel said the exploitation of migrant workers on temporary visas is widespread in Australia, including wage theft.

He said that the migration system allows this exploitation to occur, as migrant workers risk losing their right to remain in Australia if they report such abuse or lose their job.