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18 Jun 2023

Australia: Govt. reforms visa regulations & employer penalties to tackle migrant worker exploitation

On 5th June, the Australian government announced new laws that aim to protect migrant workers from exploitation. The reforms include:

  • Prohibiting employers who exploit migrant workers from hiring other visa holders.
  • Criminalising the practice of coercing migrant workers into breaching their visa conditions.
  • Tripling some existing financial penalties.
  • Extending the length of time migrant workers have to find a new employer if they wish to leave their sponsoring employer.
  • Repealing a segment of the Migration Act wherein migrant workers cannot contravene a condition regarding the work they are allowed to do, in order to encourage migrant workers to report exploitation.
  • $50m in funding for the Australian Border Force to help enforce the new laws.

The government also hopes to strengthen the separation of the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Department of Home Affairs.

The reforms were created in the context of an increasing awareness of the labour exploitation of migrant workers in the country. This includes allegations of systematic wage theft in a Grattan Institute analysis, which found 16% of recently arrived migrants were paid below the minimum wage.

Migrant rights activists and academics, including the Migrant Justice Institute, suggest the reforms could lead to positive change, such as by enabling migrant workers to leave exploitative employers without the risk of losing their residency.

The Retail Supply Chain Alliance, a coalition of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, the Australian Workers’ Union, and the Transport Workers’ Union, also praised the reforms and linked the developments to migrant rights advocacy over ‘many years’, while also highlighting how the efficacy of the protections will depend upon their design and implementation.

On 5th June, in an article published in The Conversation, researchers from the Grattan Institute praised the reforms, but also highlighted that alone, the changes are not enough. The article cites a number of further developments needed, such as changing visa rules that encourage the exploitation of working holidaymakers.

We welcome the new and clearer definitions which will prevent exploitative employers from pressuring migrant workers to work outside of their visa conditions. These laws are a critical step towards ending workplace exploitation and wage theft that many migrant workers face.
Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association National Secretary, Gerard Dwyer