December 11, 2020

Exploitation In The Country Of The ‘Fair Go’?

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Investigating the hidden side of life for migrant workers in Australia

When we think of exploitation and migrant workers, most might first think of places or industries in the developing world where economic settings or lack of regulation could create conditions for such unethical practices. But the truth is the risk is global.

Australia has long been known for the concept of the ‘fair go’; a culture of being reasonable, being fair, and providing equal opportunities. But issues relating to migrant workers are increasingly coming into the spotlight. With the launch of the ‘National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery 2015-2019’, and plans to establish a Modern Slavery Act, conversations in Australia are including topics closer to home to address the challenges around migrant workers happening on our own soil. But to tackle this problem, we must first understand where this is happening, who this is happening to, and why this is occurring.


Recently, several cases have come to light in Australia across different sectors:

  • Agri-business: labor hire contractors making money from modern slavery of migrant workers
  • Construction: labor exploitation of migrant workers
  • Food and beverage: exploitation of workers at Domino’s Pizza
  • Domestic workers: domestic workers treated like slaves
  • Retail: convenience store chain7-ELEVEN underpaying workers

The report ‘Wage Theft in Australia: Findings of the National Temporary Migrant Work Survey’ was released by the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative together with UNSW Sydney and UTS in November 2017. The report details the findings of an expansive migrant worker survey, drawing on responses from over 4,000 temporary migrants of over 100 different nationalities working in a range of jobs in all states and territories. Key findings showed the widespread underpayment of migrant labor, particularly in food services and especially in fruit and vegetable picking. Severe underpayment was experienced by every major nationality of backpackers and international students, with at least one in five Americans, British, Indians, Brazilians, and Chinese earning around half the minimum wage. A substantial number of respondents were also found to work in conditions that could amount to criminal forced labor.


All workers in Australia, including migrant workers, are covered by the Fair Work Act 2009 (NO. 28, 2009) and are entitled to fair pay and employment conditions. In 2013, amendments to the Criminal Code Act 1995 established forced labor as a stand-alone criminal offence in Australia. At first glance, the legal protection is there to safeguard all workers, but there remain cases of exploitation that are slipping through this safety net.

Exploitation [mass noun]: The action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work.

The term ‘exploitation’ covers a spectrum of practices. It can include the underpayment of wages or other breaches of Australian workplace conditions. In some cases, it can be so serious that the conduct is criminal and may include human trafficking, forced labor, servitude and slavery.

So who are these vulnerable or at risk people being exploited in Australia? Because of their immigration status, migrant workers may be a vulnerable group, with certain cohorts at greater risk of exploitation. This group not only includes cohorts of migrants looking to work over the short or long-term in Australia, but also international students, backpackers, and those entering Australia for a working holiday. In such cases, the visa conditions can be manipulated and several systematic problems recognised;

  • Some are brought to the country via third parties, and arrive misinformed, enslaved, or bound by debt
  • Some are working illegally, perhaps overstaying or breaking the conditions of their visa, and so will not report their exploitation to the Australian authorities through fear of deportation
  • Some are sponsored by employers and want to convert to a longer-term visa, so will not complain about working conditions or cannot lawfully leave their jobs and remain in Australia
  • Some are not familiar with the labor practices or law in Australia, are not familiar with relying on or trusting law enforcement, or believe everyone on their type of visa is underpaid
  • Some still have higher earning potential in Australia even with underpayment, or are willing to receive less pay for cash

Understanding the ‘why’ is a complex issue. Multiple parties often play a part where exploitation isn’t necessarily the goal, but the outcome from a series of related actions and circumstances. Labor shortages or limited financial resources from small business can be contributors at one end of the scale. The cultural, social and economic situations of the diaspora communities in Australia are also risk factors that can create demand. Business decisions around contracting, procurements and hiring are key in tackling such issues. Third party recruiters and labor hire contractors also have a responsibility to address systematic abuse.


There are a number of stakeholders in this space working to help tackle these issues;

  • Regulators and law makers;
  • Fair Work Ombudsman;
  • The Migrant Workers’ Taskforce;
  • Law enforcement;
  • Academics and researchers;
  • Workers’ unions;
  • NGOs and community groups;
  • Industry programs that include certification of labor hiring agencies promoting ethical recruitment practices (such as Staff Sure or the Fair Farms Initiative); and
  • Corporates.

In 2016, a Senate Committee referred to the exploitation of temporary work visa holders in Australia as a ‘national disgrace’ and set out a list of 33 recommendations to tackle this problem. These recommendations focus on the visa system itself, and range from the collection of more information to providing more funding, updating visa procedures, and amending legislation. The cross-agency Migrant Workers Taskforce, established in October 2016, was a key response to this inquiry. Calls have also been made to regulate and licence labor hire contractors to prevent worker exploitation.

There are also increasing discussions focusing on the provision of pre-departure information to the most vulnerable migrant worker cohorts through linking this to the issue of their visas and highlighting their rights before arriving in Australia. The need for increased information on-arrival is also being discussed, plus additional support for those migrant workers heading to rural settings by connecting remote workers to community programs.

The upcoming Modern Slavery Act will also be significant in driving the importance of due diligence in supply chains, both within and outside Australia. This will also link discussions around labor standards and the overall awareness of labor hire contractor practices.

From a business perspective, issues can being hidden in the supply chain or by third party agencies or contractors. It is now at point where businesses must take a proactive stance on risk assessments in their supply chain to ensure that their existing programs and practices are robust enough to manage and mitigate emerging risks. Strategies and programs will need to be well-informed, with the thoughtful management of risk and performance a necessity.

Exploitation is not a one-dimensional issue. It is also not an issue that can be tackled alone. Multi-stakeholder engagements are valuable to ensure that businesses are taking a unified stance to not only raise the bar on recruitment and labor practices, but also support each other on impact-oriented programs or initiatives.

A lot more needs to be done to raise awareness of responsibilities for both employers and employees. Specific remedies need to be sought out, advocated and addressed through collaboration of stakeholders to make sure no one falls through the safety net, and ensure migrant workers are given a ‘fair go’.
Our thanks go to Jennifer Burn, Director at Anti-Slavery Australia and Professor at the University of Technology (UTS), Sydney, for contributing to this article.

This article will be followed next week by a closer look at the approaching Modern Slavery Act in Australia, where we will examine the progress, reception and implications of this legislation. Together, these articles are exploring some of the issues and solutions for business that will be discussed at The ELEVATE Leadership Series 2018, in partnership with STOP THE TRAFFIK Australia, to be held 22 March in Sydney, Australia. Registration is open and space is still available.



  • A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders, Commonwealth of Australia, March 2016
  • Exploited and illegal: Unlawful migrant workers in Australia, Monash University 2017: Preliminary findings from the Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award Research Project: The exploitation of unlawful migrant labor: regulation, exploitation, vulnerability (ARC DE1411279).
  • Anti-slavery Australia website
  • Wage Theft in Australia: Findings of the National Temporary Migrant Work Survey. Migrant Worker Justice Initiative, November 2017
  • Revealed: the systemic exploitation of migrant workers in Australia, Guardian Australia 2016

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