Chair’s Public Statement September 2017 meeting

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Chair's Public Statement - Professor Allan Fels AO

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

Cross-Government collaboration

Mr Michael Andrew AO, Chair of the Black Economy Taskforce, presented at the meeting and I would like to thank him for his insights on the progress of the Black Economy Taskforce and areas for reform. It is clear that our Taskforces have many areas of mutual interest, and that issues around exploitation of vulnerable groups of workers have arisen in both of our deliberations and stakeholder consultations.

Stakeholder consultation

The Taskforce held stakeholder roundtables in Melbourne and Sydney in late July, where we heard directly from legal organisations, community groups, academics, industry and representative bodies on policy responses and possible remedies for the exploitation of migrant workers in Australian workplaces. I would like to thank attendees for their contribution to this issue. A number of policy ideas and other proposals were generated from the roundtable discussions, which the Taskforce will consider carefully.

Addressing underpayments and access to justice

I am very pleased that the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Bill 2017 received royal assent on 14 September 2017. This is an important step in providing better protections for migrant workers and other vulnerable groups. I am pleased that I was able to provide direct input to the Bill through the Department of Employment and Minister Cash.

The Taskforce discussed a range of other proposals that might assist in addressing underpayment of migrant workers and improve access to justice. As Chair of the Migrant Workers' Taskforce, I believe that more effective and efficient wage recovery is a crucial step in addressing exploitation of vulnerable workers. Members agreed to have further discussions about this important issue at the next Taskforce meeting.

Labour hire options

The Taskforce continued to explore options to address the exploitation of migrant workers by rogue labour hire operators, and supported my proposal to present a number of options for reform to the Minister for consideration in early 2018.

Working holiday visas

The Taskforce engaged in further discussion around the policy intent and operation of the Working Holiday visa program, and received an update from the Australian Tax Office on the progress of the working holiday maker employer register which commenced on 1 January 2017. The Taskforce noted the increased efficiencies and enhanced enforcement capabilities of government agencies that could be achieved through improved data sharing arrangements. I expressed my view that more needs to be done in this area given the exploitation that has been identified through media exposés and the roundtables we hosted.

International student visas

The Taskforce remains concerned about the exploitation of international students and will meet with leaders in the education sector to discuss how the substantial number of international students can be better protected from exploitation in Australian workplaces.

More effective enforcement

Unscrupulous employers and labour hire intermediaries are on notice after further Australian Border Force (ABF) Australian-wide operations. ABF and Fair Work Ombudsman officers are undertaking a series of joint operations targeting organised visa fraud, illegal work and the exploitation of foreign nationals. It is important to see enhanced enforcement activities and a focus on employer sanctions. There are heavy penalties for unscrupulous employers who organise illegal work, including up to 10 years imprisonment and/or fines of up to $210,000.

Next steps

The Taskforce will next focus on identifying overlap in government enforcement activities around migrant worker exploitation and options to improve coordination between government agencies.

The next Taskforce meeting is scheduled for early December 2017.