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

We’ve all heard the stories. Migrants working unpaid overtime in restaurant kitchens. Picking fruit in the stifling heat for a pittance. Or convenience store workers clocking in 18-hour shifts for less than half what they’re owed.

Grattan Institute’s recent report, “Short-changed: How to stop the exploitation of migrant workers in Australia,” shows that these aren’t just isolated stories. Up to 16 per cent of recent migrants are paid less than the national minimum wage. Many more migrants miss out on their superannuation, overtime and paid leave.

And local workers aren’t immune: our research shows that one in 11 of all workers in Australia were paid less than the minimum wage in 2022.

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.

Businesses that try to do the right thing can’t compete. And people’s trust in our migration program is undermined.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Thankfully the federal government is starting to take action.

The government announced on Monday that it will strengthen the hand of the Australian Border Force to target employers that 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 the government’s reforms don’t go far enough. Other temporary visa holders will remain vulnerable to exploitation.

The rules that force working holiday makers to work in regional areas to extend their stay in Australia should be abolished. Instead, working holiday makers should be limited to a single one-year visa – what Australians are entitled to abroad.

The government should also commission a review of international higher education in Australia, with a brief to identify ways to weed out dodgy course providers, which would permit the fortnightly cap on students’ work hours to be relaxed.

And Australia needs to do a much better job of enforcing its workplace laws. Last year, the workplace cop on the beat, the Fair Work Ombudsman, hit employers who underpaid their workers with just $4 million in penalties. By contrast, the Australian Tax Office collected $3 billion in penalties from those who didn’t pay taxes.

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

When penalties for exploiting people are so small, it’s little wonder so many businesses regard underpaying their workers as just an easily affordable cost of doing business.

The federal government should give the Fair Work Ombudsman the powers and the budget it needs to properly hunt down and weed out Australia’s bad-faith employers.

Courts should be able to issue much bigger fines to bosses who underpay their workers. Unscrupulous employers who knowingly exploit their workers should face jail time. And the Ombudsman needs a new name – the Workplace Rights Authority – to send the message that Australia is going to be taking a tougher approach to protecting vulnerable workers.

We also need to make it easier for migrant workers to pursue employers for unpaid wages. In doing so, we’d also give employers a reason to think twice – because if they knew migrants were going to report them to the authorities, they’d be less inclined to underpay in the first place.

The government should fund community legal centres to help migrants and establish a migrant workers centre in each state. Migrants often do the dirty but essential work that Australians don’t want to do. They deserve to be paid what they are owed.

While you’re here…

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Danielle Wood – CEO