Fair Work Ombudsman Finally Acknowledges Overwhelming Evidence of Backpacker Exploitation

The Fair Work Ombudsman this weekend released a damning report into the conditions of 417 working holiday visa holders around Australia, highlighting brutal exploitation, criminal underpayment, and an environment of fear and anxiety.

The report comes off the back of a survey of more than 4,000 overseas workers, with more than two thirds reporting that they felt their employer was taking advantage of them. A majority of those surveyed also admitted that they were not willing to speak up about the exploitation, afraid that their employer might punish them by denying them a second-year visa.

It’s heartwarming to see the Ombudsman finally recognising the exploitation of 417 visa holders, especially after the years that the AMIEU, the National Union of Workers, and everybody else involved in the agricultural sector have spent sending them evidence proving it exists.

The report even makes note of the positive steps taken by meat processing companies like Baiada and Thomas Foods to improve standards for their workers — steps taken in direct response to years of sustained pressure by the AMIEU and direct video evidence of worker exploitation so overwhelming and horrific that it made the national news.

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James now agrees that the evidence clearly points to dodgy labour hire companies who have “set up a business that is reliant on exploitation of workers”, and that “one of the things that troubles us about these labour hire companies is … we turn up at their registered business address and that’s not their registered business address.”

The key question that remains is no longer “does exploitation exist”, but “what are we going to do about it”?

Unfortunately while it’s great to see the Ombudsman finally get on board with what everybody has been saying all along, it’s clear that they have absolutely no idea how to fix the problem.

The list of Official Recommendations that bookends the report is littered with meaningless wishy-washy language: a “working group” to “examine regulations”, a “review of information sharing”, “exploring opportunities to extend channels”. These vague recommendations will be now be passed on to the Federal Government’s Migrant Worker Taskforce for further consideration, three more years will pass, and exploitation will continue unabated because nobody in Government seems willing or capable of addressing the issue at the heart of this abuse: ABN rorting.

This issue isn’t something that can be fixed with vague, useless recommendations about awareness raising and working groups: wholesale structural change is needed to rigorously reinforce the rights of workers and to punish companies who abuse them.

A solution is ready and waiting, and it’s something we’ve written about many times before: mandatory Tax File Numbers for all visa holders, and joint employment legislation to force companies that engage labour hire agencies to be responsible for the abuse that happens on their farms and in their meat sheds.

Until the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Government are willing to tackle the cancer at the root of this illness, workers around Australia will continue to be exploited and abused. Real political courage — not surveys and working groups — is needed to lead the wholesale changes that will put a stop to this horrific practice.