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Australian Senate makes exploitation of migrant visa workers a criminal offence

“Since the 7-Eleven scandal a decade ago, we’ve known that the threat of visa cancellation keeps migrant workers locked into unsafe, underpaid work."

The Australian Senate has passed new laws making it a criminal offence to exploit workers based on their visa status.

Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs Andrew Giles tweeted that Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023 Bill passed the Parliament with unanimous support: “Thanks to all of the senators who spoke in support of legislation that will benefit all workers – both citizens and visa holders.”

Minister Giles as a junior lawyer two decades ago has represented workers who had been exploited in industries like manufacturing.

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He said in a statement:

“Just like our plan to give every Australian taxpayer a tax cut, the Government’s legislation will benefit all workers across the economy – visa holders and Australians alike. Under our new laws, it doesn’t matter if that company is a multinational giant or a hundred years old – if exploitation is happening, they’ll get a knock at the door. This reform is a win for all workers – and could not have been achieved without the bravery of those who spoke up and told their story.”

Earlier, migrant workers, the Migrant Justice Institute and the Human Rights Law Centre called on Mr Giles for strong, reliable and enforceable visa protections for workers.

These protections included a guarantee against visa cancellation for temporary migrant workers who take action against their employers.  

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iMAGE: Sanmati Verma, Managing Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre (Source: Website)

Sanmati Verma, Managing Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, has observed

“Since the 7-Eleven scandal a decade ago, we’ve known that the threat of visa cancellation keeps migrant workers locked into unsafe, underpaid work. …Migrant workers deserve a guarantee against visa cancellation if they take action against exploitation and abuse.”  

The present changes in the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023 coincides with recent changes to the Fair Work Act 2009 (FW Act) aimed at protecting migrant workers.

The FW Act now provides that migrant workers will be entitled to the same wages and entitlements as other employees, even if they do not have the right to work in Australia, including where they breach a visa condition.

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Image: Labor Senator for Victoria Jess Walsh (CENTRE) (Source: X)

Labor Senator for Victoria Jess Walsh observed during the debate:

“No matter where they come from or where they work, workers just deserve protection in this country.”

She added:

“It makes it a crime to exploit someone at work based on their migration status. Employers doing the wrong thing will face tougher penalties, and employers in breach of these laws will be restricted from being able to hire more temporary migrant workers. “

The coalition has supported both the bill and the amendments moved by the Albanese government.

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Image: Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate Senator Paul Scarr (Source: Website)

Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate Senator Paul Scarr from Queensland agreed with most of the contributions made n relation to the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023.

“I think there is broad support across this chamber generally in relation to the need to protect our migrant workers against exploitation and against, effectively, blackmail, where unscrupulous employers seek to use someone’s immigration status against them in terms of coercing more work out of them, in terms of wage theft and in terms of engaging in a whole raft of practices.”

In 2015 the Senate Education and Employment Committee conducted an inquiry into the treatment of temporary work visa holders, and the report titled A national disgrace: the exploitation of temporary work visa holders was published. 

Work on this bill first began under the former coalition government, which established the Migrant Workers Taskforce in 2016 to identify proposals for improvements in law, law enforcement and investigation, and other practical measures to identify and rectify cases of migrant worker exploitation. 

In June 2023 the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023 (Bill) was introduced into the Australian Parliament.

On 22 June 2023, the Australian Government passed the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Protecting Worker Entitlements) Act 2023, amending the FW Act. 

This Bill was to strengthen employer compliance measures by amending the Migration Act 1958 (Migration Act) to protect temporary migrant workers, where previously they may have been coerced into breaching their visa conditions and exploited in the workplace.

From 1 July, any employer – “doesn’t matter if that company is a multinational giant or a hundred years old” – who will exploit visa workers will face up to two years in prison, penalties and fines will triple, and will be banned from hiring any worker on a temporary visa.

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