The government has allowed a ‘two-tier’ workforce to develop in Australia, unions say, as a new report calls for an overhaul of temporary migration

The government has allowed a ‘two-tier’ workforce to develop in Australia, unions say, as a new report calls for an overhaul of temporary migration
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  • A new report into Australia’s temporary migration system exposes rampant exploitation and underpayment.
  • Experts say the report, which follows a two-year enquiry, should kickstart an overhaul that transfers power back to unions and independent bodies.
  • The government has “allowed a second tier workforce to develop in this country of visa workers who don’t have an ability to enforce their industrial rights,” Mark Morey, secretary of Unions NSW said.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

A Labor-led Senate committee has called for an overhaul of the temporary migration system to crush exploitation and address labour shortages. 

It comes following a two-year inquiry into the current structure, which received 131 submissions and uncovered extensive evidence of wage theft and exploitation in industries with high levels of temporary migrant workers. 

The Senate committee on Wednesday handed down 40 recommendations aimed at fixing the system, including a call to scrap the 88-day backpacker work rule, which compels those on working holiday visas to undertake work in regional Australia in order to be eligible for a second-year visa.

Under the recommendations, the 88-day work requirement for backpackers would end, which is already the case for British citizens. 

Australia agreed to dump the requirement for British backpackers as part of a free trade deal.

Underpayment is rampant

The inquiry documented temporary visa worker exploitation, wage theft, physical abuse and sexual harassment. 

It also highlighted farm labour shortages, visa approvals taking years and regional communities suffering from the effects of transient workforces as issues that needed to be addressed. 

In its annual report published in October 2021, the Fair Work Ombudsman said 19,000 anonymous reports of suspected non-compliance were lodged over the last financial year.

It also reported it returned over $19 million to underpaid workers through assisted dispute resolution services, including workers in high-risk sectors like horticulture. 

The government’s Report of the Migrant Workers Taskforce, released in March 2019, found that a quarter of international students and 32% of working holiday makers were paid around half the minimum wage, with underpayment especially prevalent in food services, and in fruit and vegetable picking.

The reports also found 44% of respondents were paid in cash and half rarely received a pay slip.

Systemic overhaul needed, Labor says 

Labor senator and committee chair Raff Ciccone told parliament the committee’s findings showed years of reports had amounted to only “band-aid solutions” and “a lack of systemic improvement.” 

Ciccone called for the working holiday maker visa to be restored to being about cultural exchange rather than labour.

The report calls for bans from employing temporary migrants for employers caught exploiting workers, along with the establishment of a small claims tribunal to deal with wage theft.

It recommends a major funding boost for the home affairs department to ensure more timely visa decisions, and a legally binding firewall between the Fair Work Ombudsman and home affairs to protect whistleblowers and temporary migrants who report exploitation.

It also calls for Australia’s quarantine capacity for seasonal workers to be increased and two Pacific labour schemes improved to address farm labour shortfalls.

‘Catch me if you can culture’

The report recommended unions be authorised to conduct audits on businesses suspected of exploiting workers, along with a new body of government, industry and unions to identify and address skill shortages.

Mark Morey, Secretary of Unions NSW, told Business Insider Australia that by “turning a blind eye” the government had enabled a “second tier workforce to develop” that had gradually cut regulators and unions out of the system. 

Despite multiple reports highlighting failures of the current system, over the past ten years a merging of the Immigration Act with the Industrial Relations Act had eroded rights for migrant workers, Morey said.

“They’ve [the government] allowed a second tier workforce to develop in this country of visa workers who don’t have an ability to enforce their rights or Industrial Rights,” he said. 

He said the report’s comprehensiveness would help rebuild accountability.

It exposed that there are no ramifications for employers who breach workplace laws, which contributed to a system that has fostered a “catch me if you can” culture for employers of migrant workers. 

“There’s no penalty at the moment you get caught,” Morey said. “The worst thing you could get is you have to pay back wages that have been stolen off workers.”

Another recommendation; that employers found to have breached workplace laws be banned from engaging temporary workers, would also help reshape the system. 

Morey said Unions NSW believed the overhaul should include a rethink of which sectors use migrant workforces, and suggested better alignment between training programs and migrant workers programs would help solve this issue. 

“I think the important thing is that this needs to be linked to the education and training programs in Australia where there are shortages,” he said. 

“We should be looking at how we use temporary migration or visa workers to get us through shortage while we’re actually training up people in those industries.” 

Finally Morey said the government’s announcement late last month of a pathway to permanent residency for workers, in response to pressure from external groups, would contribute to “protecting those workers as they move through the system.” 

“We need to make sure that people who come here have the safety net of the same industrial and legal rights that Australian workers have in this country.

“They shouldn’t be second class citizens.”