Australia migrant workers

Endure exploitation or risk deportation: the dilemma of Australia’s migrants

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Law & Policy

Migrant workers in Australia often choose not to report exploitative treatment to avoid putting their visas at risk.

A new bill designed to protect foreign workers could make them more vulnerable due to its lack of whistleblower protections. Guardian Australia explores the shortcomings of the proposed bill.  

Michael’s story: Exploitation or deportation 

Michael moved to Australia from south-east Asia in 2013 to study cookery. Since then, he has built a life for himself there, with a partner, a child and a career.  

But he faces an impossible dilemma in his daily life: face exploitation in the workplace or risk losing his right to stay in the place he calls home.   

“My first employer used to bully me, all the time. I was forced to work long hours for no overtime, sometimes more than 60 hours without any more pay,” he told Guardian Australia. 

His experience with his second employer was similar: up to 12-hour shifts six days a week for a salary that covered just 38 hours per week.  

Another employer, a large hospitality company, was investigated for systematically underpaying foreign workers. Employees were given the chance to put forward evidence of exploitation but nobody did. “We could lose our visa, we might be deported,” Michael explained.  

Visas are tied to specific employment arrangements, so if an employer is found to be exploiting workers, the visa is canceled. Workers then have to find a new employer in a short timeframe or face the removal of their right to stay. 

Getting a new job is challenging as a migrant: “To look for an appropriate sponsor is not easy,” Michael says. “I am so scared and depressed the same problems will happen again.” 

How will the new bill affect people like Michael? 

The government’s proposed migration amendment bill is “designed to penalise the misuse of our migration program, and migrant workers, and create a safer environment for temporary migrant workers looking for employment,” according to immigration minister Alex Hawke. 

The bill aims to tackle migrant worker exploitation by introducing new criminal offenses for employers who coerce migrant workers into accepting exploitative conditions. It also makes it possible for companies that break the law to be banned from sponsoring migrant workers in the future. 

However, critics have said the bill would worsen the situation further. The Australian Council of Trade Unions said the bill “relies on vulnerable migrant workers coming forward to report exploitation and cooperate in an investigation, without providing them with any incentive or protection to do so.”  

Matt Kunkel, the chief executive of the Migrant Workers Centre, says the bill could “make a real problem even worse.” Guardian Australia reports: 

[Kunkel] said wage theft and other workplace exploitations were “incredibly common” for those in Australia on temporary visas: more than two-thirds of migrant workers surveyed by the Migrant Workers Centre reported being paid less than the minimum standards, and a quarter reported other forms of workplace exploitation like forced or unpaid overtime. 

“Our current migration system has created opportunities for unscrupulous bosses to take advantage of the precarious residency status of migrants,” Kunkel said. 

“If they report abuse or lose their job, they may also lose their ability to stay in the country. This means many are forced to make a difficult choice between reporting wage theft or maintaining their employment relationship.” 

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