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Australia's migrant labour pains



Australia is perceived as a middle-class country. It is this conception of wealth and comfort that inspires migrants from countries around the world to come to Australia for work, study and, for the lucky, the opportunity to make Australia their permanent home.

Chris Johnston cartoonYet this perception of comfort belies a torrid history of exploitation and class conflict. Since colonisation, Australia has brought workers to our shores under exploitative or slave-like conditions, including convicts from the United Kingdom and Pacific Islanders from the British colonies.

That up to one in ten Australian jobs are now performed by temporary migrants demonstrates a continuation of our past abuse and commitment to privileging capital over worker rights. Coupled with the rise of temporary and insecure work, our reputation as a human and labour rights leader is now under threat.

In 2016 the Senate Standing Committee inquiry produced a report titled A National Disgrace: The exploitation of temporary work visa holders, which provides insight into the plight of foreign workers in Australia. According to the Senate President's report to Parliament, tabled on 13 August, the government is still considering their response.

In a positive move which arose out of the 7-Eleven scandal exposed by Fairfax, which impacted evidence to the Inquiry, the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) 2017 was introduced. This act introduces liability for franchisors for the behaviour of franchisees toward employees and increases the powers of the Fair Work Ombudsman. Despite this move forward, most of the Inquiry recommendations have fallen by the wayside.

In recent weeks, researchers released results from a survey of workers across a range of industries and visa types including international students, temporary work visas and backpackers to create a picture of how widespread wage theft is among our foreign workforce.

The Wage Theft in Silence survey found that exploitation is rife, with one in three respondents earning $12 an hour or less in some jobs, approximately half the minimum wage. Many respondents earned $15 or less an hour.


"We need to recognise the value in a healthy society of limits to greed and excess lest we be swallowed up by our own rapacity."


According to the survey report, 'The scale of un-remedied underpayment of migrant workers in Australia is vast. This was clearly demonstrated by 7-Eleven's internal wage repayment program which alone repaid more than $150 million in unpaid wages to its mostly international student workforce.'

However, it is not ignorance of Australian law that is fuelling this level of abuse. According to the survey, workers understood they were being substantially underpaid, but knew that to protest this would result in unemployment and threaten their right to work in Australia.

A few years ago, desperate not to have to apply for the dole, I responded to an advertisement on a popular recruitment site for charity fundraising. As I got chatting with one of several backpackers waiting for the information session to begin, a disturbing story emerged.

A young woman from the UK told me she had worked in this job previously and had collapsed and ended up in hospital suffering dehydration. As is the daily practice, she had been dropped out in the suburbs without water or personal effects and expected to door-knock endlessly in the summer heat until the van would come back to pick up the exhausted fundraisers in the early evening. They were often working outside the hours that door-knocking is legal.

Such shameless practices reflect an unwillingness to impose limits on the free market and are likely to go unchecked under a government inspired by the prosperity doctrine. Looking back to the industrial revolution, the only limit to the demands of the free market were dictated by religious observance of the Sabbath. By the time Adam Smith's ideology gained popularity, consumption and self-interest had become a guiding principle in Western economic culture.

Wrote Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776): 'Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production and the welfare of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.' 

The culture of greed in labour exploitation is confirmed by a QLD farm manager contacted for comment: 'Farms are profitable. While not all farmers are wealthy, the joke is you see farmers that look poor but drive a very nice car ... I think the fundamental driver of exploitation in agriculture is greed, with farms justifying it as being needed due to seasonality.'

In allowing and rewarding excesses in human nature we now face serious challenges to our health, environment and quality of life. We need to recognise the value in a healthy society of limits to greed and excess lest we be swallowed up by our own rapacity.



Rosie WilliamsRosie Williams is an investigative and technology journalist with a strong interest in inequality and civil rights. She has a degree in sociology and significant experience with poverty due to a lifetime of disadvantage.

Topic tags: Rosie Williams, migration, work



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Existing comments

Rosi Williams is right to describe the exploitive conditions many migrant workers experience here in Australia today. In the past workers in these circumstances woke up to themselves and formed trade unions and represented themselves to employers and governments, with great success. In many cases today workers do not seem to have grasped that lesson, to get organised. Hopefully the trade union movement will work out ways of recruiting those migrant workers, organise and represent them as happened in the path.

Kevin Vaughan | 02 December 2018  

This is an important article that raises many ethical issues. Australia might be perceived as a wealthy middle class country overseas, but people need to know that there is also much poverty and that discrimination exists here as well. In the past two decades, we have seen many Australian workers being forced into contract and part-time conditions. Often, they are in situations where they only receive exploitative wages and have poor OH&S standards and other working conditions. This has contributed to many families facing economic problems. This situation has been exacerbated by the conservative governments that have cut back social services while rewarding the super wealthy many of whom pay little or no tax with billions of tax payer dollars. Taking from the poor and giving to the very rich is the name of the game. In addition, we know that many employers want to employ migrant workers because they know that they will get away with paying them less and hiving them unfair and some times dangerous working conditions. Any change in this situation needs ethical governments that pass laws to ensure that all workers - both Australian and migrant - are fairly treated in their wages and working conditions, that provide adequate social services and free education and health services to all. And for these policies to work, we need adequate enforcement agencies. Some employers will call this "red tape", but we do have other legislation to protect human rights, consumers, public health, road safety etc. And, as Kevin Vaughan, argues in his comment, we need to encourage young people and those who are vulnerable in their employment to join unions. After all, as the Chileans say in their famous chant that has become international "The Workers United Will Never Be Defeated"!

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 03 December 2018  

For those in the church who have concerns about the conditions many workers face today as identified by Andrew Alcock, perhaps the time has come for the formation of a Christian Worker Movement. It is helpful that people write about these issues and others suggest what governments might do, but nothing is as relevant as a strong trade union representing its members. Catholic social teaching supports workers organizing themselves in trade unions, read Laborem Exercens JP 11

Kevin Vaughan | 03 December 2018  

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