RLC in the Media: Wage theft and exploitation rife among migrant workers

Skilled migrants who have experienced exploitation and harassment at work are urging the government to crackdown on rogue employers and provide visa certainty.

Samuel Yang reports for ABC The Business 

Julia, a skilled migrant worker from South America, spoke to ABC about her experience of being exploited.

Julia was offered a sponsorship in early 2020, working as an industrial designer, which provided her with a potential pathway to permanent residency in Australia.

As a sponsor, her employer was legally required to pay Julia $65,000 per annum for her position as well as sponsorship and visa nomination costs.

Instead, Julia said she was asked to "pay back" more than $20,000 for visa costs and to "refurbish" around $400 from each fortnightly pay packet.

Sharmilla Bargon, coordinator at Employment Rights Legal Service, said Julia's case is not unique and exposes some of the pitfalls of the skilled sponsorship scheme.

"The biggest issue with the sponsorship scheme is that employers have a lot of power, essentially employees are on the hook," the employment lawyer, who has seen thousands of similar cases, told the ABC.

"It is not just market pressures at play, you cannot just quit. For these workers, they have got so many more factors to consider, such as finding another role within 60 days and finding a role where someone will sponsor them.

"The power imbalance is critical and gives fertile ground for exploitation," Ms Bargon said.

Call on goverment to increase visa protections for migrants

Earlier this month, the federal government announced at the jobs and skills summit that it would lift the permanent migration cap to 195,000 to address economy-wide skills shortages.

But speaking to ABC, Ms Bargon explained there is still more work to do to address the inequalities for migrants on skilled visas. "We need to provide visa comfort and protection to migrant workers that are brave enough to take steps to recover their unpaid entitlements and other workplace claims," she said.

A coalition of community legal centres including Employment Rights Legal Service (ERLS) and RLC, is seeking a key commitment from the government to provide effective visa protections for migrant workers to end exploitation. Read the open letter here.

Read more: Skilled migrant workers speak up about sponsorship visa exploitation and workplace sexual harassment (ABC News, 13 September 2022)