Amendments in parliament aim to protect migrant workers

The bill seeks to protect migrant workers from 'exploitative' work arrangements, among others

Amendments in parliament aim to protect migrant workers

Amendments to migration law have been introduced in parliament that aims to strengthen protections for migrant workers and "ensure that unscrupulous competitors do not undercut law-abiding employers."

The Migration Amendment (Protecting Migrant Workers) Bill 2021 would adopt key recommendations from the Migrant Workers' Taskforce, a body that had investigated the exploitation of vulnerable workers in Australian workplaces.

In his speech during the bill's second reading, Alex Hawke MP said the taskforce's report showed that migrant workers are "particularly vulnerable to underpayment and exploitative work practices." The taskforce then recommended making a person's act "to knowingly pressure, influence or coerce a temporary migrant worker to breach a visa condition" as a punishable offence.

In response, the bill seeks to establish new offences against coercing or exerting undue influence or pressure on migrant workers to accept exploitative work arrangements. Hawke said these new offences and related civil penalties would apply to employers, labour hire intermediaries and other people involved in employing or referring non-citizens for work in Australia.

"Migrant workers make a significant contribution to Australia's labour market and are a vital part of our economy and our community. They meet skills and labour shortages and contribute a diversity of ideas and experience. Migrant workers will continue to play an important role to assist economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic," Hawke said.

Under these new offences, an employer cannot "coerce or pressure a migrant worker into accepting work arrangements that would lead to them breaching a work-related visa condition;" or "use the threat of a dob-in or visa cancellation or withhold evidence of employment that would support a future visa application, to induce a migrant worker to agree to sub-standard employment conditions."

The bill also aims to establish a framework for the minister for immigration to prohibit an employer from directly or indirectly employing additional temporary migrant workers for a period under specific conditions, such as where a person is convicted under the Migration Act of a work-related offence or ordered to pay a penalty for breaching a work-related provision.

"This prohibition is designed to penalise the misuse of our migration program, and migrant workers, and create a safer environment for temporary migrant workers looking for employment," Hawke added.

The bill further includes requirements for employers and third-party providers who refer non-citizens for work to verify the immigration status and conditions of prospective non-citizen employees appropriately through the Visa Entitlement Verification Online system (VEVO).

The VEVO is designed for individuals and businesses to check whether a non-citizen holds a visa and the conditions that attach to that individual visa.

"These amendments clarify that employers also have a fundamental role to play in ensuring the integrity of Australia's migration program," Hawke said.

The bill would also increase the financial penalties for work-related offences and civil penalties under the Migration Act. "These changes demonstrate how seriously this government views the issue of misusing our migration program to exploit migrant workers," Hawke said.          

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