RLC in the Media: Legal centres and employer groups call for better protections for migrant workers

A national coalition of organisations is calling for better protections for migrant  workers to prevent wage theft.


Rhiana Whitson reports for ABC News


A recent Senate inquiry found migrant workers were particularly vulnerable to underpayment and exploitation and most did not seek help.


Along with the Uniting Church and Ethnic Communities' Council of Victoria, 14 co-signatories have written to the major parties asking them to act on three key reforms recommended by two recent Senate committees to protect migrant workers from exploitation:


  • Visa protections for migrant workers that report exploitation or wage theft to the Fair Work Ombudsman, and claims made through the courts
  • An affordable and accessible dispute resolution mechanism for workers to recover unpaid wages and entitlements
  • Extend the Fair Entitlements Guarantee (FEG) to all employees, including those on temporary visas


Coordinator of the Employment Rights Legal Service Sharmilla Bargon says the current legal system allows for exploitation and discourages workers from seeking help.


Ms Bargon said whistleblower-type protections would encourage more migrant workers to recover underpayments. 


"The exploitation of migrant workers is widespread," she observed.


"We commonly see people come in and talk to us and they've been paid as little as $12 an hour."


Ms Bargon said the reforms would also act as a deterrent to unscrupulous employers who use deportation as a threat.


"We see employers threatening to report workers to the Department of Immigration with trumped-up visa breaches," Ms Bargon said.


"This works: migrant workers are scared to lose their visas and be made to leave Australia.”


A survey of 5,000 migrant workers commissioned by the Migrant Justice Initiative in 2019 found three-quarters of participants had been paid less than the minimum wage.


After  getting help from the Employment Rights Legal Service,  one recent client was repaid $20,000 by her employer’s company administrators, but Ms Bargon said other temporary visa holders she has worked with have not been so fortunate because there was often no cash left to pay employees.


Ms Bargon said extending the Fair Entitlements Guarantee (FEG) would protect those who could not recover money through a company administrator.


The FEG is a federal government scheme that can cover certain unpaid employment entitlements to eligible employees who lose their jobs due to the liquidation or bankruptcy of their employers.


"These migrant workers are paying tax but temporary visa holders are not eligible for the program," Ms Bargon said.


Read the full article (19 May 2022, ABC News)