Melbourne, Australia – The Australian government is facing renewed calls to strengthen protections for migrant workers against exploitation and abuse, after announcing it will increase permanent migration places to address ongoing skills and labour shortages across the country.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s government has lifted the number of permanent migration visas available for the 2022-23 financial year from 160,000 to 195,000.
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“Our immigration system can be a powerful promoter of Australia’s open, free, prosperous, democratic society around the world,” Home Affairs Minister Claire O’Neil said in a statement announcing the change on September 2.
Greater permanency for some migrant workers has been welcomed by trade unions and business groups alike.
But according to Matt Kunkel, who heads the Melbourne-based Migrant Workers Centre, “temporary visa holders are still going to form a very large part of the workforce”.
“Our statistics show that roughly two out of three people on temporary visas are experiencing some type of difficulty in the workplace,” he said.
“We can’t see a rise in the permanent migration numbers as a silver bullet to fix the system.”
Putri* arrived in Sydney in February 2017 on a Working Holiday Visa (WHV), hoping to send money home to her mother in Indonesia after the death of her father the year before.
With a limited command of English, she began working in a shop owned by another Indonesian and was paid roughly 4 Australian dollars ($2.75) an hour less than the minimum wage, which then stood at 18.29 Australian dollars ($12.59) an hour.
Being underpaid in one of the world’s most expensive cities meant Putri was forced into cramped accommodation — sharing a two-bedroom apartment with 16 people.
In her next job as a waiter in a pizza restaurant, she was paid 26 Australian dollars ($17.90) per hour. But here, she was repeatedly sexually assaulted.
First, a male colleague groped Putri’s breast in front of others without consequence. On another occasion, when they were closing up shop in the early hours, he assaulted her again.
“I felt like I just wanted to die. But I kept going to work, because I needed money,” she said.
Record job vacancies
Before the pandemic struck, Australia had the second-largest temporary migrant workforce in the OECD, second only to the United States.
But strict border closures imposed in response to COVID-19 meant the country reported negative net migration in 2020-21 for the first time since the Second World War.
The Grattan Institute, a think tank, estimates there were 1.5 million temporary migrants in Australia in January 2022, compared with almost 2 million in 2019. Australia’s total workforce is 13.6 million.
Some 190,000 permanent visas were granted annually between 2012 and 2016.
But the number of permanent migrants was declining even before the pandemic because the previous conservative government imposed an annual cap of 160,000 permanent migrants in 2019.
Even so, approximately a third of Australia’s population in 2020 was born overseas — with England, India and China providing most arrivals.
The drop in the number of migrant workers during COVID-19 exacerbated existing skills shortages and left businesses from civil engineering firms to health clinics, care homes, and restaurants without the staff they need.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported a record 480,000 job vacancies in May 2022 — more than double the number at the beginning of the pandemic in February 2020.
“As the pandemic has shown us, Australia’s reliance on millions of guest workers is no longer sustainable, not that it ever was,” said Labor Senator Raff Siccone, the chair of a Senate committee tasked with investigating the effect of temporary migration, when it handed down its findings last September.
The committee concluded that temporary migration arrangements increased the likelihood of wage theft and physical and sexual violence against workers.
Audi Firdauz came to Australia on a WHV four years ago and has been documenting his experiences on the #Vlogstralia YouTube channel.
WHVs are valid for 12 months and available to foreigners aged 18 to 35. People holding WHVs are barred from working for a single employer for more than six months.
Some WHV holders, such as Audi, were granted extensions to cover labour shortages during COVID-19.
Subsequent WHVs can be granted if people work in certain industries in specific locations — like fruit picking — which campaigners say leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by employers.
While Audi has enjoyed living in various parts of the country and trying out different jobs, the Jakarta native said he had been underpaid in most roles.
While working at an abattoir in the state of New South Wales, for example, he continued to receive a trainee salary even after he had completed his six-month traineeship — 20 percent less than he was promised.
“The problem was the employment agreement. From the beginning it was only verbal … there was no [written] contract.”
Firdauz said one Indonesian friend who is still working at the abattoir continues to receive trainee wages despite having been there for more than three years.
“I want industries in Australia to be better,” he said.
Australia has a patchwork of temporary visas that grant work rights — largely aimed at lower-skilled jobs — from student visas to seasonal work visas mostly extended to citizens of Pacific Island nations.
Talipope Kalolo, a 29-year-old from Samoa, told a Senate inquiry in February that he and his countrymen had been “treated like slaves” by their employer on a strawberry farm as part of the Seasonal Migration Program, which has since become the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme.
Pacific workers have reported pocketing as little as 200 Australian dollars ($137.66) for a week’s physical labour after employers had deducted extortionate amounts from their salary to cover rent, food and travel costs.
Some argue that Australia should also start to invest more in migrants already in the country, given that some are underemployed or even barred from working altogether.
Marina Agh, a spokesperson for Professional Migrant Women, told Al Jazeera that the Australian government should “focus not only on bringing in migrants but putting more energy into supporting those who are already here”.
“Many of them, women in particular, with qualifications and extensive experience from their countries, end up working in low-skilled jobs because of multiple barriers to employment,” Agh said.
About one in three of the 100,000 asylum seekers in Australia on bridging visas do not have the right to work, according to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, and are forced into underground employment. Those who work illegally are unlikely to report abuses for fear of breaching their visa requirements.
A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said the government has “zero tolerance for any exploitation of workers, regardless of their visa status”.
It “intends to bring forward a package of measures to combat migrant worker exploitation” from 2023, they added.
Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman told Al Jazeera that migrant workers “can be vulnerable due to factors such as limited English or little understanding of their rights under Australian law”.
A spokesperson said there is tailored information on its website “designed to help visa-holders understand their rights” and that abuses can be reported anonymously via the Fair Work Infoline.
Kunkel of the Migrant Workers Centre said there was a need to “provide on-arrival education or even pre-departure education about workplace rights” in a range of languages other than English.
“How do you enforce rights you don’t understand or don’t know you have?”
Putri no longer lives in overcrowded accommodation and has a job she enjoys as a dog groomer. She is now a permanent resident after marrying another Indonesian citizen with permanent residency status.
She hopes the government will also make mental health support services more affordable so they are more accessible to migrants.
“A lot of Indonesians here don’t know anyone … so they run to gambling or drinking,” Putri said.
“I really want people to know [the risks], especially Indonesian women, so they won’t be so innocent when they come here.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity.