Chair's Public Statement February 2017

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Chair's Public Statement

Professor Allan Fels AO

The Migrant Workers’ Taskforce held its second meeting on 25 January 2017. The Taskforce was established by the Hon Michaelia Cash, Minister for Employment, to stamp out the exploitation of migrant workers in Australian workplaces.

I thank members for their attendance at the meeting and their contributions. Taskforce members include the Department of Employment, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Fair Work Ombudsman, Department of Education and Training, the Australian Taxation Office, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Attorney-General’s Department, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources and the Australian Securities and Investment Commission.

The Taskforce received presentations from the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Australian Industry Group, the National Farmers’ Federation and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry on the issue of migrant worker exploitation. The discussion was positive and informative and the Taskforce appreciated the opportunity to hear from attendees. The Taskforce agreed to broaden its consultations to include community groups, academics and other experts at a future opportunity.

At its first meeting, the Taskforce set itself four areas for action. These are:

  • Better communication with visa holders
  • Stronger measures to prevent and redress workplace exploitation
  • More effective enforcement
  • Ensuring that policy frameworks and regulatory settings are right

I am pleased to report progress on a number of fronts.  

Better Communication with Visa Holders

The Taskforce has reviewed all existing communication activities with visa holders undertaken by member agencies. There is significant activity occurring across government. We know that there are barriers to getting information out to visa holders about workplace rights and entitlements. We also know that there are barriers to migrant workers coming forward to make complaints. I am pleased to announce a package of measures that aims to address both of these.

Agencies will coordinate efforts so that messaging to visa holders is simple, clear and effective. To achieve this, we need to hear from visa holders and I am pleased that a research project will be undertaken jointly by the Fair Work Ombudsman, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Department of Employment on ‘what works’ for migrant workers.

We know that some vulnerable visa holders are fearful of contacting Government agencies to complain about exploitation. The Taskforce discussed ways to assure these workers that they can report anonymously and endorsed a proposal by the Fair Work Ombudsman to host a new anonymous reporting online tool designed specifically for migrant workers and promoted online and through various community groups. This new tool will allow migrant workers to provide information or share concerns about a workplace without identifying themselves, if they do not wish to make a formal request for assistance to the Fair Work Ombudsman. Importantly, they will be able to provide information through the online reporting tool in their own language. The new reporting tool will help in both assisting people and allowing us to better understand the scope and scale of the issue.

To support and encourage migrant workers to come forward with complaints, the Taskforce considered the matter of visa arrangements for exploited migrant workers. 

While a general amnesty from migration law is not appropriate, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Fair Work Ombudsman have agreed that where temporary visa holders with a work entitlement attached to their visa may have been exploited and they have reported their circumstances to the FWO, the Department will generally not cancel a  visa, detain or remove those individuals from Australia, providing:

  • the visa holder commits to abiding by visa conditions in the future; and
  • there is no other basis for visa cancellation (such as on national security, character, health or fraud grounds). 

For any temporary visa holder who has no work entitlement attached to their visa, the Department will make no commitment other than to consider the case on its merits. 

This measured approach balances risks to the integrity of the programs with protecting exploited migrant workers.   

 Stronger measures to prevent and redress workplace exploitation

The Taskforce was established by the Minister following the significant exploitation of visa holders working with 7-Eleven franchisees.  One of its terms of reference is to continue to monitor 7-Eleven’s progress in addressing the significant underpayments to its migrant workers.

The Taskforce noted the Proactive Compliance Deed that 7-Eleven has signed with the Fair Work Ombudsman.

I also wrote to 7-Eleven on behalf of the Taskforce seeking information about its repayment program and its CEO has responded to my letter. The Taskforce agreed that the CEO of 7-Eleven will be invited to the next Taskforce meeting to further discuss its wage remediation program.

The Taskforce is considering more generally the effectiveness of the avenues for redress available to exploited workers.

More effective enforcement

Taskforce Cadena, a joint operational taskforce headed by the Australian Border Force and the Fair Work Ombudsman, has continued to target people involved in organised visa fraud, illegal work and the exploitation of foreign workers over the past few months. The Taskforce is tackling serious cases of migrant worker exploitation, with a specific focus on rogue labour hire organisations including those operating off-shore. Future efforts will go towards prevention of serious exploitation by working with partner agencies in other countries. 

As at 12 January 2017, Taskforce Cadena has received 267 allegations for investigation and completed 13 operations, uncovering evidence of serious wrong-doing, including illicit drug, illicit firearms and proceeds of crime offences. The Taskforce strongly endorses the focus of these enforcement actions being on the organisations alleged to be responsible for worker exploitation.

 Ensuring that policy frameworks and regulatory settings are right

The Taskforce noted that the Government is undertaking consultations on proposed legislative measures foreshadowed in its Protecting Vulnerable Workers Policy. The Government will introduce a Bill in the first sitting of Parliament in 2017. The Bill will amend the Fair Work Act 2009 to increase penalties for underpayment and record keeping breaches, introduce a new serious contravention category of penalty, make cashback scams explicitly prohibited and make franchisors liable for the contraventions of their franchisees unless certain conditions are met. 

I look forward to this very important legislation as I consider it is critical to addressing the highly exploitative culture and practice of some employers.

Next meeting

The next meeting will focus on a range of key issues, including the role of labour hire companies in the employment of visa holders. Several experts will be invited to speak to the Taskforce including the Recruitment and Consulting Services Association which will discuss its role in relation to labour hire in the horticulture industry and the chair of the recent Victorian inquiry into labour hire companies.

The next Taskforce meeting will be held in early April 2017.

We still have a lot more to do and will continue to consult broadly to better our understanding of the issues and develop solutions.