Migrant Workers in the spotlight

Recently the ABC television show Four Corners provided some much needed attention to the abuse of migrant workers by some Australian employers.  The episode of Four Corners entitled “Slaving Away” illustrates three major problems facing the Australian workforce:

  • the abuse of guest workers resulting in undercutting existing conditions and workplace rights;
  • labour hire companies being used by major corporations to avoid their legal obligations; and
  • major retailers and fast food corporations turning a “blind eye” to illegal work practices in their supply chain.

“Slaving Away” provided real life examples of exploitation being visited upon guest workers.  The tales of exploitation included the illegal employment of workers (contrary to their migration status); dangerously long hours, unsafe working conditions, underpayment or even non-payment of wages; abusive supervisors and even sexual harassment.

The employment of migrant workers on the visa system makes these workers very vulnerable.  To maintain their status on a working visa, migrant workers will often tolerate appalling working conditions, thereby rendering them susceptible to unscrupulous employers and work practices.  The union movement has been saying this for some time only to be labelled as scaremongers by the Abbott Government and employer groups.  The Four Corners episode vindicates the story unions have been trying to tell.

Whilst the revelations in the Four Corners program came as a shock to the broader community, unions and their members have been aware of this type of abuse of for some time and have been pursuing the perpetrators.  One of the companies named in the Four Corner program is Baiada Poultry.  Baiada is well known to the National Union of Workers (NUW) who have had on-going battles with that employer over health and safety and the use of sham contracting arrangements.  In 2011, Baiada took legal action against NUW officials for filming the unsafe practices at the company’s Wingfield site in South Australia.  At that time Baiada described the filming and publication of unsafe practices as a “campaign of harassment”.

Labour hire enables an organisation to outsource some or all of its workforce to another legal entity.  The Four Corners story was an extreme example but it highlights a problem faced by many workers throughout Australia.  In order to escape existing conditions of employment that have negotiated and agreed upon by the employer, the use of labour hire enables that employer to escape their obligations.  

The labour hire company, by definition, is a different legal entity to the principal employer.  Enterprise agreements do not necessarily apply to employees of labour hire companies who can, as a result, be paid (often illegally) considerably less than employees who are directly employed on site.  Even worse the use of labour hire can absolve the principal employer of their basic legal obligation.  The Four Corners show demonstrated how the principal employer can simply turn a blind eye to abuses being undertaken on its own behalf by the labour hire company.

There is currently no impediment to becoming a labour hire company and no controls over how labour hire companies conduct themselves.  It is quite obvious that there is a need for licensing and regulation of labour hire companies so that their conduct can be audited.

A senate enquiry is underway into the visa system.  The union movement will be vigilant in highlighting the problems associated with guest workers and labour hire arrangements that have allowed abuses to take place.

The union movement has also publically called upon major corporate identities to take a stand and accept responsibility for the abuse of guest workers.  Major retailers and fast food outlets are the recipients of product made under sweat shop conditions.  Retailers such as Woolworths, Coles, Aldi, IGA and Costco and fast food outlets KFC, Red Rooster and Subway were named as being associated with the supply chain in the Four Corners report.

There is no need to completely prevent the use of guest workers where there is a genuine shortage of labour and employers have documented their efforts to source local workers, however there is an obvious need to provide for greater safeguards.  The Four Corners episode demonstrates the need for an immediate review of the existing legislation concerning guest workers.  There is also a palpable need for the regulation of labour hire companies and amendment to the Fair Work Act and relevant state legislation to ensure that the use of labour hire is not a ticket to lower wages and substandard working conditions.

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