While the government is to be commended for its establishment of a special taskforce to address fraud in the working holiday visa program, its target should be labour hire contractors, not working holiday-makers.
The first job of the taskforce is to come to terms with the increasing commercialisation of migration. The business model of many labour hire contractors hinges on exploiting vulnerable migrant workers. These contractors present themselves to employers offering a simple, attractive and integrated service.
For example, as a recent ABC Four Corners program exposed, in the agriculture industry contractors not only recruit migrant workers to pick the crop but the contractors also assume responsibility for wages and all employment paperwork, including superannuation and tax. All the farmer need do is pay a single invoice to the contractor.
In this arrangement, the migrant worker loses out every time. The farmer gets a ready supply of labour without the hassle of paperwork. The contractor gets a tidy windfall from paying workers less wages in return for finding them a job, providing crammed housing and ferrying them to and from their place of work each day. While there is no firm evidence about the extent of the contactor system, we know it accounts for a substantial and increasing share of the harvest workforce.
To make matters worse, the labour hire arrangement is a “triangular” one, so when workers are being exploited they don’t know whom to turn to. The Four Cornersprogram perfectly captured the precarious situation of many migrant workers by revealing what happened when a migrant worker made an allegation of sexual harassment to the farmer about the labour hire contractor. The worker was told by the contractor that there was no more work for her to do and she was out of a job. Labour hire workers are the ultimate disposable labour force. Given the myriad vulnerabilities faced by many working holiday-makers, it is vital the taskforce focus on labour hire contractors as the primary culprit for fraud, not migrant workers.
The demonisation of migrant workers for failing to meet statutory obligations backfires as it makes these workers afraid to complain. Labour hire contractors take advantage of this as they know they can get away with exploitation of workers as the latter will get deported if they are in breach of their visa conditions. Migrant workers need to be protected so that if they complain to the taskforce about an exploitative employer or labour hire contractor, this information is not passed on to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Thus, the second job of the taskforce is to create a safe environment for whistleblowing by working holiday-makers.
A third job of the taskforce is to ensure employers are held accountable for engaging dodgy labour hire contractors. All participants in the supply chain should be held responsible for breach of labour standards.
The final challenge for the government goes beyond the taskforce, and relates to the design of the working holiday-maker visa. The visa is aimed to allow genuine tourists to supplement their holiday finances but increasingly has become a back door for employers to access low-skilled workers.
The agriculture industry is a good example. Farmers say they turn to working holiday-makers at harvest time because there are no locals willing to do this work. Unions argue no locals are available because the wages and conditions are set too low. Farmers respond that their profits are being squeezed by the deadly duo of overseas competition, where produce is picked by cheap labour, and by ineffective labelling laws that allow imports to seem like they are Australian-made, without being so. The bottom line for farmers is that if they can’t find workers at harvest time, then their produce goes to waste. We need to have a conversation about whether a low-skill work visa is the solution to this impasse. A low-skill work visa would need to be effectively regulated so workers were not an easy target for exploitative work but also so it doesn’t unnecessarily burden employers with too much red tape.
Nonetheless, it is not acceptable for the status quo to continue. The working holiday-maker scheme is not adequately regulated to protect these visa holders in the labour market and this visa should not be used by the government to address specific labour shortages by providing short-term casual employment to regional industries. This situation is unfair to migrant workers as it creates the conditions for exploitation to flourish, and it is unfair to employers as it makes it more difficult for them to meet their staffing needs.
Joanna Howe is a senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide law school.