Labor’s laws on worker exploitation are a good start, but won’t fix the real problem

International workers deal with brutal exploitation every day, whether it’s workers in our own sector like the underpaid employees in meat processing, or in other sectors like the 7-Eleven workers toiling away for 47 cents an hour.

We’re pleased that Labor are finally paying attention to this problem, especially since we’ve been sending them (and the Liberals) documentation about it for years. You can read our submission to the 2015 Senate Committee on exploited visa workers here (PDF link), if you’d like some more information.

Labor’s proposed amendment to the Fair Work Act 2009 (PDF link) makes some changes that will, undoubtedly, help to improve conditions for exploited workers in Australia. But just like taking painkillers and expecting it to fix a broken leg, Labor’s proposals address the symptom, and not the cause.

We support many of the measures in Labor’s amendments. Section 15A, which ensures that the Fair Work Act applies to all workers, even those who have breached their visa conditions, is a great start and will make many migrants more willing to speak up.

But there’s just one problem: as soon as a worker breaches their visa conditions, they can (and often very quickly will be) deported. So while it’s great that technically, these now-deported workers are legally able to file for compensation, they’ll have to do so from their home country with no support and entirely on their own, using money that they don’t have (because they were being underpaid).

Labor must make it illegal to deport a worker for breaching their visa conditions until their claims can be sorted out, otherwise this positive change will have no practical effect.

We also throw our support behind some of the other measures: enforcing that workers must be educated on their rights in a language they speak, for example, is a positive change. Additionally, workers may not be dismissed simply for asking if they are a contractor or an employee. We support this.

Unfortunately, the rest of the proposed amendments are largely symbolic because they only punish companies for bad behaviour, not address the reason that bad behaviour is profitable.

There are two real solutions to this problem – joint employment legislation, and restrictions on Australian Business Numbers – and without them, Labor’s legislation won’t be worth the paper it’s written on.

Why do big corporations exploit migrant workers?

Let’s say you’re the CEO of a big corporation. You outsource your work to a “labour company” (a dodgy shell company run by an old mate of yours) who will find some “enthusiastic contractors” (migrants who don’t speak English and who were told they’ll be given a good job in Australia if they can come up with a $15,000 deposit in advance) because it’s cheaper this way than it is to pay Australian workers a decent Australian wage.

After all, Australian workers have rights! They speak English! And you can’t just deport them if they kick up a fuss.

If it should come to light that your “labour company” has been exploiting its “contractors”, you pretend to be shocked, you disavow the “labour company”, and you swear to “closely investigate to make sure this can never happen again”. Two weeks later, when nobody is looking, you hire another “labour company” and repeat the whole process.

No matter how many times you are discovered or how many fines the ALP wants to impose, profit-hungry companies will keep doing this because it’s always cheaper and there are no consequences. After all, it was that dodgy labour hire company that exploited those workers, not you! You won’t be working with them again (at least under that name). There are no legal consequences for this behaviour.

We need solutions that attack the problem at the source.

Under joint employment law (already successfully implemented in places overseas), corporations would be legally responsible for the actions of the dodgy labour hire company as if they themselves were the employer.

When it’s impossible to outsource your exploitation and greed to somebody else and impossible to legally insulate yourself from the consequences, the risk-reward prospect of picking up a dodgy “labour hire company” and their shipping crate full of “enthusiastic contractors” becomes much, much less appealing.

Restricting ABNs would serve a similar purpose. Currently anybody can qualify for an ABN, even if they’re just visiting Australia for three months. This means that they can be treated as a “contractor” and “set their own rates” – which translates into the real world as “sleeping three-to-a-bed and working for $5 an hour”.

We strongly believe that ABNs must be restricted to permanent citizens only or to people on the pathway towards permanent citizenship. Instead, visiting workers must be issued with a Tax File Number instead, so that they can be treated as an employee (with all the rights and benefits that entails).

This would means less exploitation, more tax collection, and better data analysis to help clamp down on dodgy cash-in-hand work. Everybody wins – except shady employers who are looking to cut costs by hiring underpaid “contractors”.

Until these changes are enacted into law, all vulnerable workers will continue to be exploited. Labor’s proposed new amendments are a step in the right direction but they don’t go nearly far enough and they won’t solve the problem.

We call on the party to show some courage, stand up to the big businesses that donate so much money to their coffers, and put a stop to the real cause behind exploited workers.

For more information, contact:

Grant Courtney
AMIEU Newcastle & Northern Branch
PH: 02 4929 5496 or 0417 118 945