In the 1970s, worker exploitation was rife in the rag and car manufacturing trades. But even these days, migrant workers desperate for a source of income are unlikely to raise grievances, becoming vulnerable to exploitation. From restaurants to abattoirs and farms, exploitation continues to exist.

The Australian government has released an exposure draft of the Migrant Amendment (Protecting Migrant Workers) Bill 2021 that proposes new criminal offences and civil penalties to further protect migrant workers from exploitation.

Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs Minister Alex Hawke said that “the majority of Australian businesses and employers do the right thing but there are still a small number of unscrupulous employers who find ways to exploit migrants”.

He said the proposed Bill sends a strong message from the government that wage underpayment and other exploitative practices against migrant workers are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

“This legislation is timely as we work on economic recovery from COVID-19. We want to ensure Australia maintains a strong reputation as a destination of choice for working holidaymakers, students and skilled migrants,” Mr Hawke said.

The Bill prohibits certain employers who have breached specified provisions in the Migration Act or the Fair Work Act 2009 from employing additional non-citizen employees for a specified period; establishes new compliance tools for the Australian Border Force to work with employers, labour hire companies, etc; requires the use of the Visa Entitlement Verification Online (VEVO) system to ensure employers conduct appropriate checks on employees’ immigration status; and increase civil penalties for breaches of work related provisions. More importantly, the Bill proposes a number of new offences designed to prevent an employer from using migration laws to coerce migrant workers.

READ MORE: Government bill hopes to stop migrant worker exploitation, and the community is invited to give their input

Adelaide-based  FECCA Chairperson, Mary Patetsos, said the Migration Amendment (Protecting Migrant Workers) Bill 2021 would reduce the probability of workers entering into work arrangements against their will or under exploitative conditions.

“Circumstance pushes many migrant workers into jobs where they are underpaid and often at the mercy of the employer,” Ms Patetsos said.

“Employers will now have a duty of care towards workers from overseas – something woefully absent today in many businesses.”

Ms Patetsos said the Bill restores the dignity of employees from overseas and, recognises their huge contribution to keeping key sectors of the Australian economy vibrant.

“It’s also important to acknowledge that most businesses are doing the right thing by their workers, and these proposed changes will give them confidence and will restore the reputation of those sectors who heavily rely on hard working migrant workers,” she said.

Ms Patetsos expressed her hopes that the Bill will be accompanied by an effective engagement and communications strategy and protections for affected workers.

“Many migrant workers are not aware of the Fair Work Ombudsman and its role. It’s critical that newly arrived migrant workers are made aware of their rights and that they will not lose their place in Australia if they stand up for these rights.” she said.

“FECCA will work with the Government toward ensuring the safety of all migrant workers.”

Kris Pavlidis, FECCA Deputy Chair, told Neos Kosmos that Victoria is particularly affected by migrant worker exploitation as the state has “a huge number of people who are susceptible and vulnerable because of their visa status, as well as international students who live local.”

“Any kind of reform would be welcome… but we’re starting with a low benchmark,” she said.

“Employment and employer security is critical to anyone’s well-being and make a difference to how people integrate.”

READ MORE: Manolada migrant farm workers to get state protection

She said that the bill is “a start” but said for real change there needs to be a “structural and systemic overhaul (of the current system) in order to address the key issues at stake as they impact the individual and families.”

She said that on her outings it is very visible that a large portion of the workforce is comprised of people who are on a visa and “given there is such a large number” there needs to be support.

“The economic equation is what it is but that doesn’t make it right,” Ms Pavlidis said. “We have a social, moral and economic responsibility.”

Consultation on the exposure draft of the Migration Amendment (Protecting Migrant Workers) Bill 2021 will close on Friday, 16 August 2021. For further information on making a submission visit the Department of Home Affairs website.