Chair’s Public Statement December 2017 meeting

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Chair's Public Statement - Professor Allan Fels AO

The Migrant Workers' Taskforce held its sixth meeting on 1 December 2017 in Canberra. I thank members for their continued contributions.

Labour hire options

The Taskforce noted that the Australian Government has recently announced a number of measures that will help to address some of the drivers of unscrupulous labour hire practices, such as introducing Director Identifications Numbers, improvements to the reporting of the Superannuation Guarantee, measures to address illegal phoenixing and modern slavery in supply chains reporting requirement. The recent amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 to increase penalties and provide additional powers to the Fair Work Ombudsman to investigate complaints will also assist.

The Taskforce remains committed to developing options to put to the Government that will address unscrupulous labour hire practices where there has been systemic migrant worker exploitation. The Taskforce noted that the Queensland and South Australian Governments have legislated to establish state-based licensing schemes to commence in early 2018, and the Victorian Government introduced legislation in December 2017.

Accommodation issues experienced by migrant workers

The Taskforce is concerned about reports of poor quality, unsafe and expensive options for accommodation for migrant workers, particularly for some working holiday makers working in regional and rural areas to satisfy the requirements for a second year visa. Some of the issues reported include deceptive practices, breaches of the Fair Work Act 2009 in relation to deductions from wages, and the provision of substandard or unsafe accommodation.

The Taskforce noted that while there are regulatory protections on accommodation requirements in place, particularly at State and local government levels, more could be done to improve the effectiveness and the enforcement of existing laws.

The Taskforce discussed options to improve temporary migrant workers' access to safe and secure accommodation, including where accommodation is provided by labour hire operators. Members agreed to do further work on options to present to Government for its consideration, including increased collaboration with state and territory governments.

Addressing underpayments and access to justice

Underpaid workers need their wages rectified and repaid by their employer as quickly as possible, through a process which is simple and easy to access. Australia's current system of redress deals mainly with individual claims, but additional measures are needed to help vulnerable migrant workers, especially on a larger scale, for example, when many workers from one company are affected. I have asked the Taskforce to continue to consider ways to address this issue and ensure that migrant workers are assisted more quickly and effectively.

The Taskforce considered the current effectiveness of the small claims jurisdiction for migrant workers. While it noted that the small claims process provides a relatively inexpensive way for workers, including migrant workers, to recover wages, the Taskforce considers there is room for improvements that will enable more complainants to be assisted through the process.

Working holiday makers

The Fair Work Ombudsman's office provided an update on progress being made by Taskforce agencies in progressing the recommendations of its 2016 inquiry into the wages and conditions of people working under the 417 Working Holiday Visa Program. In addition to the launch of the in language anonymous reporting tool and the Record My Hours app, the FWO has:

  • Introduced a dedicated 'visa holder' option for calls to the Fair Work Infoline that directs callers to translated website resources and prompts advises to ensure the caller understands the advice given; and
  • Expanded in language content on the Fair Work Ombudsman website to 30 languages and improved content on popular topics such as pay, leave and ending employment.

International students

I recently held meetings with Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education and Training, and leaders in the education sector to highlight the problem of wage exploitation of international students and discuss how international students can be better protected from exploitation in Australian workplaces.

I consider more needs to be done by the education sector to help prevent wage exploitation of students working under visa restrictions. I am pleased that the Council for International Education has recently established a working group on student service delivery which I am advised will be looking at the exploitation of student visa holders and what actions the sector can take.

Opportunities for using data analytics

The Taskforce discussed ways to better use data analytics to target communications and compliance strategies across government in relation to wage exploitation issues. I am pleased to announce a suite of measures that will improve how government shares data to protect migrant workers, including:

  • establishing a cross-agency migrant worker data and analytics working group led by the Australian Taxation Office; and
  • greater utilisation of the Australian Business Register non-public data.

The Taskforce agreed to further consider opportunities to better utilise government data holdings, and will present options to the Minister in early 2018.

Next steps

The Taskforce will make recommendations to Government through its report in early 2018. The Taskforce will next meet in early 2018.