This Sydney Policy Lab report, The Future of enforcement for migrant workers in Australia (pdf, 1.1MB) by the solicitor Ms Umeya Chaudhuri and Associate Professor Anna Boucher, offers a series of pragmatic policy solutions to both motivate employers to engage with their employees fairly and to remove barriers to justice for migrants who have been exploited.
The conversation about migrant working conditions in Australia remains as important as ever. Before COVID-19, more than 2 million temporary migrants in Australia accounted for up to 10 per cent of the Australian workforce in key sectors such as construction, healthcare, and hospitality. Some of these workers already experienced precarious work arrangements and minimal access to welfare payments; limitations which continued during the pandemic.
When it comes to ensuring fair wages and conditions, Australia has a well-documented enforcement gap between the number of workers experiencing exploitation and the number of actions taken against employers to ensure compliance. On top of the personal cost to families and communities, wage underpayments alone have been estimated to cost the Australian economy $1.35 billion each year, particularly in sectors with high proportions of migrant and other precarious workforces, such as construction, retail, and accommodation and food services.
Research to date indicates that the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) does not have sufficient resources to achieve total wage compliance and monitoring across the Australian labour market and that current enforcement mechanisms relying on employer self-regulation and voluntary compliance arrangements have not significantly reduced migrant worker exploitation. While the 2019 Migrant Worker taskforce (the Fels Inquiry) was established to address some of these issues, and the Australian government endorsed all 22 resulting recommendations, substantive reforms are still being implemented.
Drawing on best practice approaches from the State of California (USA), Canada (the Provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta), New Zealand and the UK (England), this report provides the Australian government with practical policy reform recommendations which can help strengthen the system for the benefit of both workers and industry.
Increasing and varying penalty enforcement levers
Coordinating action with other actors
New wage recovery system
Overall, the health and economic crises brought on by COVID-19 appear to have exacerbated economic insecurity across Australia. This increases the risk of labour exploitation for already vulnerable workers, of which migrant workers are an important grouping. This report provides practical policy solutions for Australia’s labour enforcement landscape — in particular for migrant workers — with the aim of creating a robust regulatory environment that ensures the labour safety net extends to all those living and working in Australia.
Download the full report: The Future of enforcement for migrant workers in Australia (pdf, 1.1MB)