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09 April 2016
Edited by Sanwar Ali
Written by Daniel Waldron and Sanwar Ali
The Australian Senate Committee says that there is exploitation of temporary foreign workers in Australia who enter the country under a range of schemes including the Seasonal Worker Program for Pacific Islanders, working holiday visas (417 and 462) and 457 visas for skilled workers. The Australian Senate Committee says the situation is a 'national disgrace.'
Since 2015, the Senate standing committee on education and employment has been gathering evidence supplied by temporary workers, unions, labour hire companies and businesses. The Senate Committee recommends that a number changes are made to the visa schemes.
There is a great danger that by bringing in tougher immigration controls to "protect workers from exploitation" you can actually make things worse for the immigrants that you wish to protect. Tougher immigration controls tend to make it more difficult for immigrants to enter and remain in Australia. In this situation immigrants may very well be even more reluctant to mention any concerns that they might have about their working conditions. Further restrictions may have the opposite effect to what the Senate Committee are hoping for.
An investigation by Four Corners – Australia's top current affairs program known for exposing scandals and triggering inquiries – stunned the agricultural industry and politicians when it exposed a number of labour recruitment companies accused of exploiting foreign workers.
Additional reporting by the ABC – an online Australian news outlet – uncovered the poor treatment of Pacific Island workers recruited under the Seasonal Worker Program. In 2015, the Fair Work ombudsman – an organisation that provides advice and information on workplace rights that also monitors certain 457 subclass visa arrangements as part of its responsibilities – described how labour hire companies were 'elusive' and operated like 'syndicated crime outfits.'
A report published by the Senate Committee contains 33 recommendations including one calling for more data to be freely available about the number of temporary workers in Australia and the amount of time they have been in the country.
It further recommends an overhaul of the Ministerial Advisory Council on Skilled Migration (MACSM) – a tripartite body comprised of industry, union and government representatives, which provides advice to the Minister and Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection on Australia's temporary and permanent skilled migration programmes.
The Senate Committee wants to see the MACSM made more independent, receive improved funding. The Senate Committes also wants them to review Australia's working holiday visa schemes. During several hearings, senators repeatedly heard about labour hire companies exploiting workers by threatening them with deportation should they complain about pay or working conditions.
Numerous recommendations proposed by the Senate Committee aim to tackle such threats, which includes the opportunity for those with complaints to confide in the Department of Immigration and ensure they are dealt with in a 'victim-centric' manner. It is claimed that this will make it safe for them to voice their complaints without fear of reprisals. How this would work remains to be seen.
The Senate Committee also wants to see changes to the Migration Act and Fair Work Act, so that workers who do violate the terms of their visa do not automatically lose their jobs.
The Senate Committee's report advises changes to Australia's immigration programs to enable workers to pursue claims against employers or labour hire companies, even after the expiration of a visa. The report further calls for rehabilitation and compensation schemes to be reviewed so that workers who suffer lifelong injuries or disabilities are also entitled to the same remuneration packages as Australian workers.
The report added that the babies and children of temporary foreign workers should be entitled to free vaccinations.
The majority of the Senate Committee's recommendations focused on changes to the 457 visa, it is claimed to make it easier for local workers to apply for jobs.
Another recommendation is to force Australian companies to recruit an Australian graduate for every professional worker they sponsor on a 457 visa and put a requirement in place for employers sponsoring 457 visa holders to demonstrate that at least a quarter of their employees are Australian.
Senators also proposed that a levy be introduced on every 457 visa worker, with the funds being split across the existing working visa programmes to provide support for areas of Australia's economy suffering labour shortages.
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