Migrant voices must be heard: Ending the exploitation of newly arrived and refugee workers

The exploitation of migrant workers in Australia is widespread, with current systems failing to stop the abuse. The WEstjustice Community Legal Centre Employment Law Project seeks to address this by consulting with newly arrived and refugee community members, leaders and organisations, and collaborating with community partners to improve employment outcomes. Project Lead Catherine Hemingway (@cathemingway) shares this summary of the Project's key findings and recommendations, to be released in an upcoming report: Not just work: ending the exploitation of refugee and migrant workers.


 Community leaders at the Sunshine Harvester factory gates (Image credit: Jessica Hogg).

Community leaders at the Sunshine Harvester factory gates (Image credit: Jessica Hogg).

I cannot think of any other [wages] standard appropriate than the normal needs of the average employee, regarded as a human being living in a civilized community. (Justice Higgins, 1907)
Living in that hostel made me see a very different side of Australia, the dark and uncivilised side. (Joyce,[1] WEstjustice client, 2015)

The Western suburbs of Melbourne are home to a diverse range of people from new and emerging communities. Arriving from foreign countries, many have experienced violence, torture or trauma and are now separated from family members and social connections. Many things are new – from language to public transport, culture and education systems. Showing resilience and determination, community members seek to create a new life. Employment is consistently recognised as a central part of that new life – and a vital step for successful settlement.

The Western suburbs are also home to the birthplace of the Australian minimum wage. In 1907, the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration considered the wages of workers at the Sunshine Harvester Factory. The Court decided that a fair wage should be based on the needs of workers, not the whim of the employer. This historic decision marked the beginning of universal minimum employment standards in Australia. Importantly, Justice Higgins’ decision is grounded in notions of a ‘civilised community’ and the needs of workers as human beings, not commodities.

Unfortunately, despite our laws maintaining a commitment to universal legal minima, the lived experience of refugee and migrant workers doesn’t always match up.   

Exploitation is widespread

The problem of exploitation of migrant workers is well known. Following the 7-Eleven wage scandal, in the lead up to the last Federal election both the Coalition and ALP made significant policy promises aimed at better protecting vulnerable workers. The Victorian Government recently held an Inquiry into the Labour Hire Industry and Insecure Work, the Senate Education and Employment References Committee has reported on temporary migrant worker exploitation, and in its recent report on workplace relations, the Productivity Commission acknowledged that migrant workers ‘are more susceptible to substandard working conditions (such as being underpaid) than Australian citizens’. Joyce’s story provides one powerful example:

The machine started to move straight away once we all sit on our seats. You couldn’t stop picking or go the loo when the machine was running. They only gave us 2 five minutes break and 20 minutes lunch break for a 9.5-hour-shift. There was no toilet so we had to pee wherever we were. There were no sheds at all so some of the workers had hot stroke sometimes, also because we didn’t get chance to have a sip of water.
… As I remembered they said we earned 95 bucks each that day. The farm bus picked up the Cherry Tomato picking backpackers on the way back. The poor girls worked all day non-stop but they were only told that they earn 25~40 bucks for 9.5 hours work. Sounds terrible but the worse thing happened after that was we never got paid at all.
Nobody complained to Fair work. I guess we were all a bit scared to say anything or to fight too much. What if they do anything to us when we are in the middle of nowhere? The universal feeling we had was a mixture of confusion, anger, helpless and loss-of-dignity.

Over the past three years, WEstjustice has witnessed extensive abuse across numerous industries including food processing, hospitality, cleaning, construction, distribution, security and care work. We have seen disturbing cases of underpayment and non-payment of wages, including two workers paid one salary between them and others working for as little as $7 an hour. Migrant workers also experience discrimination, frequently lose their jobs, and are routinely denied basic entitlements. They experience bullying, are forced into sham contracts and work in unsafe jobs with high injury rates.

The reasons for exploitation include:

  • marginalisation of the voices of migrant workers;
  • limited access to decent work (in 2011, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 9.1% of Humanitarian migrants in the labour force were unemployed, compared to 4.9% of the general population);
  • low awareness of workplace rights and services (in a WEstjustice survey, 88% of community workers reported that newly arrived communities do not understand Australian employment laws at all or understand a little);
  • lack of effective access to mainstream services (as one community leader notes, “many in my community do not contact agencies. They are afraid, because many have had bad experiences with people in authority back home”) ;
  • absence of targeted community services; and
  • the problem of defective laws and processes.

The Not just work report explores these complex problems and argues that they can be addressed by the following ten broad steps.

Ten steps to stop exploitation

  1. Migrant voices must be heard
  2. Diversity measures
  3. Targeted education
  4. Active and accessible agencies
  5. Community-based employment law services
  6. Improved laws and processes to stop wage theft
  7. Increased accountability in labour hire, supply chains and franchises
  8. Laws and processes to eradicate sham contracting
  9. Reforms to stop discrimination, unfair and unsafe work
  10. Strategic measures to protect vulnerable sub-groups

Importantly, each of the recommendations is evidence-based, and informed by the experiences of our clients, community leaders and community workers.

The evidence: WEstjustice Employment Law Project

The Project was delivered in three stages. In Stage One, we conducted a literature review and consulted with community members, workers and organisations to gain a better understanding of working experiences, key concerns and how to address unmet need. We met with 39 individuals or groups and received 105 surveys, many of which were completed by community members with assistance from case workers and community leaders.

Feedback gathered from Stage One of the project informed Stage Two: a pilot employment law service and community education program. To date, WEstjustice has provided employment law advice and/or representation to over 200 clients from 30 different countries. Clients were mostly of refugee background, but also included international students, asylum seekers and subclass 457/working holiday visa holders. 77% of clients spoke a language other than English at home. 60% of our clients had lived in Australia for less than five years. As at September 2016, the ELS had successfully recovered or obtained orders for over $120,000 in unpaid entitlements and over $125,000 in compensation for unlawful termination. The ELS had also helped clients access WorkCover, keep their jobs and/or increase hours of work. WEstjustice has also delivered over 60 community legal education presentations to over 600 community members, a 10-day Train the Trainer program with community leaders and presented sessions for agency staff working with newly arrived communities.

Stage Three involved the use of quantitative and qualitative data from Stages One and Two to prepare the final report and inform further advocacy work.

Conclusion: migrant voices must be heard

“Because of you, I will be powerful to help other people.” (WEstjustice client)

The Harvester Factory gates still stand in Sunshine, and serve as an ongoing reminder to strive for a civilised community free from exploitation. The Not Just Work report, and the WEstjustice Employment Law Project more broadly, strives for just that: successful employment outcomes for newly arrived and refugee workers, and diverse workplaces free from exploitation.  To achieve this, migrant voices must be heard and acted upon.

Report details

Not Just Work: Ending the exploitation of refugee and migrant workers will be launched at the Fair Work Commission in Melbourne on Tuesday 15 November 2016. For further details, comments, or a copy of the report, please email Catherine Hemingway: catherine@westjustice.org.au

[1] Name has been changed