We all lose when employers mistreat migrants - Grattan Institute

As we reopen to the world, Australia needs to fix migration policy to make us all better off. 

Employers who sponsor temporary migrants working in Australia have too much power over them. Unlike most working migrants, sponsored migrants must stick with their employer or risk losing their visa.

But when getting fired means getting deported, few will ask for a decent pay rise. No one will complain when asked to work extra hours for free. 

Sponsored workers don’t have bargaining power. They are over a barrel and employers know it. The lowest paid are especially vulnerable. 

When employers underpay and mistreat migrants, everyone loses. Local workers can’t bargain for pay rises. Migrants are left destitute. Honest employers can’t pay award wages and still compete. It’s a race to the bottom. 

There is a better way.

We should start by changing who employers can sponsor to work in Australia. The minimum salary has been stuck at $53,900 since 2013. The typical worker on a temporary skilled visa earns less today than in 2005, after adjusting for inflation. 

Our research shows sponsored workers who get paid more than $70,000 a year can look after themselves. If they need to, they can tell their boss to get stuffed, and quickly find another sponsor in Australia. 

But workers with salaries below $70,000 can’t threaten to walk away. 

Employers should have to pay at least $70,000 to be able to sponsor a worker on a temporary visa. If they do that, and pay workers what Australians doing the same work get paid, they should be able to sponsor whichever workers they like. 

To help workers who are exploited by their employers, they should have an extra month to find a new employer before they need to leave Australia.

Let’s be clear. Many migrants bring get-up-and-go with them when they come to Australia, making us all better off. Australia is a country of migrants. Our families, friends, and colleagues. 

Migrants were front and centre in the worst months of the pandemic, in our hospitals, cooking meals, stacking the shelves. 

But when it comes to migrants who are stuck with their employer, we need to focus on jobs above $70,000 so Australia can both get the skills we need for the future, and protect all workers and honest employers from the scourge of exploitation. 

Leaving someone’s right to live and work in Australia at the whim of their employer is a recipe for disaster. It’s not the Australian way.

Henry Sherrell

Migration Deputy Program Director
Henry is a policy analyst with experience in government, consulting, and research. Prior to joining Grattan, Henry worked as an independent researcher focusing on Australian and international immigration policy. He has worked for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Migration Council Australia, a Federal MP, the Federal Parliamentary Library, and the Development Policy Centre at the ANU.

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