The Four Corners of Slaving Away

Last night, the ABC’s Four Corners program showed a story called Slaving Away about a number issues involving foreign workers in the agriculture industry including:

  • Gross underpayments of wages and worker exploitation; and
  • The use of illegal workers: unlawful non-citizens or those who are in breach of their visa conditions.

Most of these allegations are levelled at labour hire companies and the businesses that use them and continues right through to the ethical sourcing policies of the retailers who stock such products.

Gross underpayments and worker exploitation are not so much an immigration concern, but an employment issue due to breaches of the Fair Work Act. However, where this is relevant to immigration is that employment is a necessity for those overseas nations who are on their first Working Holiday (subclass 417) visa and wish to apply for a second Working Holiday visa to remain in Australia for an additional year. In order to apply the applicant, among other things, must work at least 88 days (3 months) in a defined regional area performing defined specified work, such as the low-skilled tasks seen in the story.

The idea behind this part of the visa programme is to encourage this type of work to alleviate the constant and seasonal labour shortages in regional areas. Under no pretence should this workforce be exploited and it is expected that any overseas worker would be subject to the same working conditions that an Australian citizen or permanent resident would have, including pay and hours of work. The unfortunate incentive for working holiday visa holders to accept poor working conditions is in order to obtain the necessary work reference or declaration from their employer to be granted this visa.

Perhaps in response, the government has now decided that volunteer work will soon no longer be accepted to meet the necessary specified work and states that in the coming months, there will be a new requirement for payslips to be submitted with these visa applications.

Due to the power an employer has over its employees, particularly in relation to visa applications that require either the business's consent or evidence of work, unscrupulous employers will use this as a bargaining chip. Working Holiday visa holders are not the only visa holders that can be subject to such practices. The individual underpayments in the story is a fraction of the $116,000 underpayment of a 457 sponsored worker, where the business was found to have kept this worker in conditions “akin to slavery”. It is, of course, hoped that this quoted matter is a gross exemption and that anyone who finds themselves in such a situation seek assistance from the established authorities such as Fair Work Australia.

As for employing illegal workers, well this is in clear breach of the Migration Act. In addition, the claim that end user companies who use workers from a labour hire company “turn a blind eye” to the exploitation of workers is no excuse. Being ignorant, wilfully or not, of an illegal workforce will not absolve the business of their responsibility to ensure that their workers have adequate work rights. At the very least, the end user must have contractual clauses with any labour hire companies to ensure that any workers are not unlawful non-citizens and are working as stipulated according to their visa conditions to protect themselves of penalties proscribed under the Migration Act.