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Australia's migrant labour pains

  • 30 November 2018


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.

Yet 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