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New database documents rights abuses of 457 visa holders

9 October 2018
New analysis of a decade's worth of data by a University of Sydney immigration expert has revealed the nature of worker rights violations experienced by temporary migrants.

Dr Anna Boucher, immigration researcher in the Department of Government and International Relations and author of the new book Crossroads: Comparative Immigration Regimes in a World of Demographic Change, has developed a Migrant Worker Rights Database that codes all available legal decisions on migrant worker rights violations.

“Temporary migrant workers represent up to 11% of the Australian labour market but, so far, little has been done to document the nature of reported abuse in their everyday lived experiences,” Dr Boucher said.

“Recent scandals in the 7-Eleven chain and the agricultural sector have brought this issue to the centre stage of national debates over immigration, but we have lacked clear evidence to understand the extent and nature of the violations.”

Dr Boucher recently used the database to code all 173 available court cases (and an array of media articles) that Temporary Work (Skilled) Visa (subclass 457) entrants to Australia brought before the national workplace relations tribunal, the Australian Fair Work Commission and relevant state and federal courts and tribunals between 1996 and 2016.

Analysis of the data was recently published in the Journal of Industrial Relations. It revealed the most common rights violation that arose in these cases was underpayment (37% of cases), followed by unfair dismissal (15% of cases).

“Interestingly, issues that we might have assumed to be more commonly associated with working conditions of migrants, such as racial discrimination, were far less common,” Dr Boucher said. “Similarly, gender discrimination also only arose in a handful of cases.”

Other key findings from the analysis:

  • Migrants from China (6.5%) and the Philippines (7.9%) comprise a small percentage of 457 visa holders but have a significant representation in the database with 26% and 13.9% of cases respectively.
  • The UK and India both comprise upwards of 20% of 457 visa holders, but far smaller percentages of claimants – 6.5% and 7.9% respectively.
  • Migrants with occupational qualifications are less likely to suffer employment violations and bring claims, compared with migrants with lower qualifications.
  • There is an empirically strong association between representation – particularly through the Fair Work Ombudsman – and the success of legal disputes.
  • Regulatory changes appear to have an impact on whether cases were likely to be litigated. For example, there was a reduction of recorded violations in 2009, the year when the tightening of the 457 rules removed some semi-skilled occupations (such as meatpacking) from entry on this visa class.

Future work on the database will expand its focus to a broader array of visa classes in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. The database will also be extended though a University of Sydney Research Accelerator (SOAR) Fellowship, to the crucial immigration gateway of the state of California, which has a largely undocumented population. Dr Boucher was named a 2019 SOAR Fellow this week.

Funding for this project is provided to Dr Boucher through the Australia’s Research Council’s Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) scheme, the University of Sydney Equity Fellowship and the University of Sydney Research Accelerator (SOAR) Fellowship.

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