After demonstrating a pattern of not caring one iota about migrant workers, the Morrison Government has now unveiled its plan to do something for them: the cringe-inducingly-named Protecting Migrant Workers Bill.
The Protecting Migrant Workers Bill is a Scott Morrison Bill, down to its core. All marketing and no substance. It is a hubristic, uninformed strategy that will do little to actually protect migrant workers.
How Will This Bill Leave Migrants Open to Further Exploitation?
The headline of the Bill, as the Coalition would have you read it, is that there will be new penalties for employers who exploit migrant workers. But under the proposed scheme, once a dodgy boss has been dealt with, there is no mechanism for protecting the rights of migrant workers. And that means workers who put their hands up to report bad bosses will potentially be forced from the country or have future visa applications denied.
The proposal is that employers found to be in contravention of the law with regard to employing non-citizens will be barred from employing any such workers in future. No mention is made at all of what rights and protections those workers will have, upon their employer being banned from engaging with them.
And without whistleblower protections that regularise a worker's visa status and allow them to remain in the country with work rights, many workers will be forced from the country well before their employers can be held to account.
Coercive exploitation of labour is dependent on so many factors that simply penalising bad actors won’t be enough to end the systemic problems that give rise to it.
Wallace Huang, an organiser at the Migrant Workers’ Centre who regularly deals with workers who have been exploited by their bosses, says that the big problem is that no thought has been given to implementation and enforcement.
“It will basically just push the exploitation further underground.”
“If you have a law where employers are banned from employing migrant workers because they’ve been found to have broken some migration law, the result will be one of two things.
“The first possibility is that a bunch of migrant workers will simply lose their jobs, and that would subsequently disincentivise reporting of any migration breaches. If you report one, you and all your colleagues might lose your jobs, or worse, face deportation and permanent exclusion from Australia.
“Alternatively, the other potential outcome is that dodgy employers will just start employing people without any kind of paper trail. It’ll go off the record so it’s harder to prosecute as a breach of the law. It’s not legal, but cash-in-hand employment is already a big problem and leads to a lot of exploitation of migrant workers.”
Wallace says that without some guarantees for the affected workers, their ability and motivation to report employers will be harmed by this Bill.
“The issue with many of the laws we have isn’t that the laws either do or do not exist. The Migration Act is already very clear that employers will be up for very large fines if they breach the Act.
“If you want to deter certain behaviour, it’s not so much about what the consequences for getting caught are, it’s also about whether someone feels it is likely they will be caught doing that thing.”
The only way to fix the problem is to make the enforcement effort so comprehensive that employers start to believe they’ll be caught for even a minor breach, and the Protecting Migrant Workers Bill doesn’t do this at all.
“We can’t say that we hate the intention of the Bill. I just think this Bill won’t do the job it sets out to do.
“It enables them to say that they’re addressing the problem, without addressing the problem.”
Why We Need a Smart, Holistic Approach
A whole-of-government approach needs to be taken, with workers at the centre of any reforms that are made.
Workers need whistleblower protection so that their visa status will not be affected in the instance of making a report. Even under current legislation, this is a huge problem.
We have heard stories where a migrant worker takes their employer to court, they win in court, and then the court refers that same migrant worker to the Department for investigation. Plus all court decisions are public, which leaves the door open for Home Affairs to start their own investigations where they feel it is appropriate to do so.
Essentially, migrant workers need the ability to protect themselves. To speak up for themselves without fear of reprisals. The Morrison’s Government’s DNA will simply not allow it to empower any workers, migrant or otherwise.
If you or someone you know is facing exploitation as a migrant worker, contact the Migrant Workers’ Centre. If you have experience working in Australia on a visa, the MWC is gathering workers’ experiences to incorporate into their submission regarding the migration system through this survey. It is vital that workers’ voices are heard in government consultation, and this survey is the first step in reforming a system that makes life very difficult for migrant workers.