Laws to combat exploitation are finally here: will they make a difference in the lives of Australia’s migrant workers?

The Immigration Advice and Rights Centre’s lawyers work directly with migrant workers who, as clients, share with us their experiences of exploitation in the workplace almost daily.

Many visa holders tell us about being paid well below minimum wage. That they are forced to work multiple jobs, day and night, to make ends meet. Our lawyers have worked on cases where migrants have suffered debilitating injuries because they were pressured to work without safety equipment. We have assisted clients whose experiences, as migrant workers, are so harrowing, they are difficult to comprehend.

“It’s the stuff of horror films,” Principal Solicitor Joshua Strutt said.

So, when the Australian Government passed new legislation through parliament last week to strengthen the rights of migrants in the workplace, it was a significant moment. A moment that advocates, including IARC and Unions NSW, have been working tirelessly to reach, for years.   

Reforms “crucial” to closing worker rights gap

“The reforms are a crucial step forward. It means we are getting closer to closing the rights gap between Australian and migrant workers,” Mr Strutt said.

The new workplace exploitation laws will include better protections for visa holders. They will ensure the Department of Home Affairs considers certain factors when they are deciding whether to cancel a person’s visa.

Why is this important? Because, when those protections didn’t exist, a migrant who reported exploitation could also inadvertently report breaching their visa conditions (like working more hours than they’re supposed to), putting their visa status at risk.

IARC has been advocating for additional reforms and we are hopeful more visa protections will be put in place later this year.

“Our clients would benefit from stronger whistleblower protections that provide visa guarantees for migrants who report exploitation,” Mr Strutt said.

“Migrant workers have told us they need certainty to speak up. They need to know they’re not risking their future, or their family’s future, in Australia,” he said.  

Community education vital to ending exploitation

IARC is one of the only community legal centres in the country that provides free legal advice and assistance directly to workers on temporary visas. We run a dedicated program, in partnership with Unions NSW, called Visa Assist for Migrant Workers.

Since last week’s announcement, IARC has been busy responding to enquiries from migrant workers about the new laws and how they will work. Demand for the Visa Assist for Migrant Workers service is at a record high in 2024 and is growing rapidly.

In the coming months, IARC will be hosting workshops for migrant workers to assist them to understand the changes and how to access protections available under the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill.

“It is vital to educate the community on these changes so visa holders know how to exercise their rights at work,” Mr Strutt said.

“With the new laws, additional visa guarantees and community education we could start to see real change. If we want to end exploitation – these three things will make a big difference,” he said.

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Sarah Sinclair
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