We pride ourselves as being the land of the fair go. But, shamefully, we fail to live up to that when it comes to migrant workers.

Grattan Institute’s new report, Short-changed: How to stop the exploitation of migrant workers in Australia, shows that as many as one in six recent migrants are paid less than the national minimum wage, twice the rate of local workers. Many migrants also miss out on superannuation, overtime, and paid leave.

Such flagrant violations make a mockery of Australia’s workplace laws. Migrants are left destitute. Local workers find it harder to bargain for pay rises. Honest businesses can’t compete.

The Federal Government announced this week that it will strengthen the hand of the Australian Border Force to target employers who exploit migrant workers. New laws will make it a criminal offence to force someone into breaching their visa conditions, and exploitative employers will be banned from hiring people on temporary visas.

Exploited migrants will be offered greater certainty that their visa won’t be cancelled if they come forward – even if they have been working in breach of their visa rules.

And a new whistleblower visa will enable migrant workers to stay in Australia while they pursue an exploitation claim.

But we should also better enforce our workplace laws.

Last year, the workplace cop on the beat – the Fair Work Ombudsman – hit employers with just $4 million in penalties. By contrast, the Australian Taxation Office collected $3 billion in penalties on those who didn’t pay their taxes.

Imagine how many fewer workers would be exploited if the Government was as tough on underpaying employers as it is on people who cheat on their taxes?

The Government needs to give the Ombudsman the powers and the budget it needs to hunt down and weed out bad-faith employers.

Courts should be able to issue much bigger fines to employers who underpay their workers.

Unscrupulous bosses who knowingly exploit their workers should face jail time. And the Government should establish a migrant workers centre in each state to help underpaid migrants to get their money back.

Migrants often do the dirty but essential work that Australians don’t want to do. They deserve to be paid what they are owed. It’s only fair. It’s the Australian way.

While you’re here…

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Danielle Wood – CEO