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Newly arrived workers face exploitation – report

17 November 20160 comments

The exploitation of migrant and refugee workers in Melbourne’s west is widespread and systemic, according to a new 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.

shutterstock_395537266The 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 ELS reported the majority of clients presented with more than one legal problem relating to their employment.

More than 60 per cent of clients had two or more employment-law related issues, 23 per cent had three or more issues, and 5 per cent had four or more issues.

The ELS also reported that many clients had other associated issues including eviction and homelessness, due to loss of employment and inability to pay rent, or problems paying bills and the need for material aid.

The findings come hard on the heels of worker exploitation scandals among some 7-Eleven franchises, at Caltex service stations and in the fruit picking industry.

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 a hour and in another two workers were being paid one wage between them.”

She said migrants were much more vulnerable than other workers.

“For many, it is hard to find decent work so they have to accept anything they can get,” Ms Hemingway said.

“There are enforcement agencies out there but they need to be more active and more accessible – especially in cases where people don’t speak English. And it’s also important people are aware of their rights,” she said.

Ms Hemingway said temporary migrant workers, women and young people face additional barriers. Exploitation continues unabated and employers gain a competitive advantage by breaking the law, while companies that do the right thing are disadvantaged.

“Exploitation not only damages individual workers, it also undermines the Australian workplace relations framework,” she said.

The report outlines evidence-based recommendations for legal and policy reform.

They include: targeted education to help workers understand workplace law and their rights as well as where they can get help; active and accessible regulation agencies to address non-compliance; increased accountability in labour hire companies, supply chains and franchises; and, laws to eradicate sham contracting.

The report is targeted at state and federal governments, policy makers, regulators, commissions, courts, agencies and community organisations.

“We have strived to ensure that migrant voices are heard in this report and hope that they are now heard by others and acted upon to stop exploitation and benefit all Australians,” Ms Hemingway said.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist