Why one group of young workers is particularly exploited
But the problem with this approach, as the Migrant Workers Taskforce Report identifies, is that international students and backpackers are highly vulnerable to exploitation. Myriad reasons exist for this.
First, these groups tend to work in low-skilled occupations in the economy where they are easily replaceable if they complain about exploitative work.
Second, these groups tend to involve young workers, some of whom have little experience in the workforce or who are less equipped in voicing concerns about exploitative treatment. Many of these workers have English as a second language and are unaware of, or reluctant to enforce, their workplace rights in Australia.
Third, the labour market contribution of international students and backpackers is invisible to the government. They are on “backdoor visas”, so the government is unaware of where these visa holders are working and cannot monitor their conditions of employment as they can for sponsored temporary migrant workers.
Fourth, international students and backpackers are usually desperate for work to support themselves financially and to achieve a migration outcome, whether that’s further stay via a visa extension for backpackers or Australian work experience for international students who need this experience to earn a temporary skilled migration visa.
These factors combine to make international students and backpackers highly vulnerable in the Australian labour market.
It is highly surprising, then, that the Migrant Workers Taskforce Report does not address the central problem of using temporary migrant workers on backdoor visas to meet labour markets needs in the economy. Instead, the report recommends introducing criminal sanctions for dodgy employers, further resourcing and powers for the Fair Work Ombudsman, reforming the small claims process and a labour licensing scheme for certain industries. Each of these reforms go some way to addressing the vulnerability of temporary migrant workers but they do not address the root problem that the design of these backdoor visas makes it easier for exploitation to occur.
[Reforms] do not address the root problem that the design of these backdoor visas makes it easier for exploitation to occur.
The clear omission in the report is its failure to address Australia’s urgent need of a visa overhaul. Temporary migration now dwarfs permanent migration, with the number of visas issued for international students, backpackers and skilled workers now triple the number of permanent visas.
This shift from permanent settlement towards temporary visa arrangements marginalises temporary migrant workers and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. It also short-changes industries such as horticulture where there are genuine labour supply challenges and which would prefer to use a front-door labour migration pathway that provides a secure and stable workforce, rather than a cocktail of backdoor visas for backpackers, international students and undocumented workers.
Although the horticulture industry has a front-door visa for Pacific workers, this program is not widely used because there are so many other available sources of backdoor temporary migrant labour that do not feature the same costs and administrative barriers inherent in the visa for Pacific workers.
Although the Migrant Workers Taskforce Report is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough. There needs to be a rethink of using backdoor visas to address labour market needs. Where there are genuine labour market needs in the economy, this should be addressed, ideally through permanent labour migration and if necessary, front door temporary visa pathways. These provide more security for employers and lead to less vulnerability for workers.