Government’s changes to working holiday visas ignore widespread evidence of exploitation

Yesterday the Federal Government announced an expansion of the visa programs for working holiday makers including overseas backpackers. Many producers in the fresh food supply chain have become highly dependent on these workers in recent years. The changes include:

  • allowing subclass 417 and 462 visa-holders to work with the same agricultural employer for up to 12 months (previously, the limit was 6 months); and
  • enabling these visa-holders to stay a third year in Australia if they undertake specified types of work in regional Australia for 6 months during the second year (previously, only a second year could be obtained if at least 88 days’ regional work was performed in the first year).

(see the Department of Home Affairs’ announcement with further details here: https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/News/Pages/changes-working-holiday-maker-visa.aspx)

The new visa rules were announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on day one of his pre-election tour of Queensland. The PM indicated that the changes, along with others affecting the Seasonal Workers Program (SWP), are about ‘backing agriculture’ and getting Australia’s growers ‘access to the labour they need to ensure their businesses are successful’.

(see the transcript of the PM’s doorstop interview here: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/doorstop-member-forde)

My concern about all this is that the Government has done very little to address the various forms of exploitation that it is widely known are suffered by working holiday makers, as well as international students and participants in the SWP from Pacific nations.

Exploitative practices include underpayment of award wages, sub-standard accommodation, dangerous conditions on farms and in meat processing plants, dangerous transportation to work sites, failure to properly deal with workplace injuries, and ‘cash-in-hand’ arrangements.

A mountain of evidence in recent years has confirmed all of this: investigations and inquiries by the Fair Work Ombudsman, reports by several federal Parliamentary committees, the Queensland and South Australian inquiries into labour hire and my own Inquiry into the Labour Hire Industry for the Victorian Government (see: https://economicdevelopment.vic.gov.au/inquiry-into-the-labour-hire-industry).

There is also now a large number of academic studies on migrant worker exploitation, including the Wage Theft in Silence report released last week by Bassina Farbenblum and Laurie Berg of the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative (see: https://www.mwji.org/).

A common thread in the exploitation of working holiday visa holders is that the 88 day requirement for a second year on the visa has resulted in many overseas backpackers accepting work almost on any terms it is offered or expected.

In other words, they are so desperate to get their employer’s sign off on the 88 days that they will not question obvious underpayment, directions to perform unsafe tasks, or other abuses (if indeed they are aware that their employer is acting unlawfully).

The scope for mistreatment will be enhanced now that the prerequisite for obtaining a third year on the visa is pushed out to a six-month period of work.

To date, the Federal Government’s measures to address worker exploitation have been to increase penalties for serious Fair Work Act breaches, impose liability on franchisors and parent companies for contraventions by the direct employer in certain circumstances, and prohibit ‘cash-back’ payments of the kind identified in the 7-Eleven underpayment scandal. It also established the Migrant Workers Taskforce chaired by Professor Allan Fels AO.

It would have been preferable to see the Government announce some more practical and immediate steps to combat worker exploitation affecting working holiday visa holders – or at least some recognition that the problem exists – rather than simply expanding the scheme for the benefit of regional producers.

A national labour hire licensing scheme would be one such measure, to eradicate the rogue labour contractors who blatantly underpay many backpackers and international students. At present we have new labour hire licensing laws operating in Queensland, partially commenced in Victoria, and on hold in South Australia pending efforts by the Liberal Government to repeal that state’s legislation.

An excellent rating, information and advice website for overseas backpackers looking to meet the 88 day requirement has been set up by the brave Rosie Ayliffe, mother of British backpacker Mia Ayliffe-Chung who was tragically murdered in a Queensland hostel during her time performing regional work in 2016 (see ‘Tom and Mia’s legacy’ here: https://www.88daysandcounting.com/).

How hard would it have been for the Australian Government to set up a website like that?

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