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Australia: take hard line with student exploitation, report recommends

Australian employers who underpay and exploit international students could face criminal penalties for the first time under new recommendations from the Migrant Worker Taskforce.

Employers could face criminal charges for exploiting migrant workers. Photo: Daniel Norris/UnsplashEmployers could face criminal charges for exploiting migrant workers. Photo: Daniel Norris/Unsplash

The report advocates for courts to be given the power to issue adverse publicity orders

“It is not a problem of having too many temporary migrants”

The Report of the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce makes 22 recommendations to combat and prevent workplace exploitation, as evidence grows of pervasive wage theft by employers in Australia.

“The exploitation of workers in Australian workplaces is not only illegal, it harms individuals, undercuts law-abiding employers and reflects poorly on Australia’s international reputation,” minister for jobs and industrial relations Kelly O’Dwyer said as her department released the report.

“[The government] has no tolerance for those who repeatedly and deliberately underpay workers, whether they are an Australian or a worker on a visa. For the very first time, we will introduce criminal sanctions for the most serious and egregious forms of deliberate exploitation of workers.”

Taskforce chair Allan Fels and his deputy David Cousins said the problem of migrant exploitation had “persisted for too long and it needs concerted action to overcome it”.

“Wage exploitation of temporary migrants offends our national values of fairness,” Fells and Cousins said.

“It harms not only the employees involved, but also the businesses which do the right thing. It has potential to undermine our national reputation as a place for international students to undertake their studies.”

“Wage exploitation of temporary migrants offends our national values of fairness”

Outside of its hardline recommendation of criminal sanctions on top of current civil penalties, the report also advocated for new court powers to issue adverse publicity orders, which would see an employer having to make a public statement of their exploitative practices.

The report also suggested legislative changes, such as amending the Fair Work Act to prohibit employers from advertising jobs at pay rates below the minimum, as well as the creation of employer, provider and education agent led awareness campaigns for international students.

The National Code for international education could also be revised to compel institutions to assist students who experience workplace issues, including referrals to external services at no (or minimal) additional cost.

Of current external services, the report recommended further funding for the Fair Work Ombudsman to increase its capacity to help international student workers.

Bronwyn Gilson, president of student services and advocacy group ISANA, said that as well as increasing the responsibilities for providers and employers, the government itself needed to play a larger role.

“All employers should not be seen as the ‘bad guy’ due to the wrong-doing of a minority”

“The government, through its various agencies, would be aware of the employers of international students and could require them to send out the same wording, [such as through] their payroll systems or employment contracts,” she said.

“This would also have the added benefit of educating the employers on their responsibilities.”

Punitive measures for employers also needed to be implemented carefully so as not to create additional restrictions for students looking to enter the workplace, Gilson said.

“It would be helpful if punitive measures were the final step in a raft of measures which should first include the education of employers,” she told The PIE News.

“All employers should not be seen as the ‘bad guy’ in this situation due to the wrong-doing of a small minority.”

The past year has seen international education come into political focus in Australia after senator Pauline Hanson called to remove work rights from overseas students in April 2018. The report appears to note some of these concerns, observing underpayment was “not a problem of having too many temporary migrants”.

In late 2018, the Wage Theft in Silence report found fewer than one in 10 international students and working holiday makers attempted to recover stolen wages.

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