Melbourne, Australia – The Australian government is facing new calls to strengthen protections for migrant workers from exploitation and abuse, after announcing it will increase places of permanent migration to address skills and labor shortages works across the country.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s government has raised the number of permanent migration visas available for the 2022-23 financial year from 160,000 to 195,000.
“Our immigration system can be a powerful promoter of Australia’s open, free, prosperous and democratic society around the world,” Home Secretary Claire O’Neil said in a statement announcing the change on September 2. .
Greater permanence for some migrant workers has been welcomed by trade unions and business groups.
But according to Matt Kunkel, who runs the Melbourne-based Migrant Workers Centre, “temporary visa holders are still going to make up a very large part of the workforce”.
“Our statistics show that around two out of three temporary visa holders face difficulties in the workplace,” he said.
“We cannot see an increase in the number of permanent migrants as a silver bullet to fix the system.”
Putri* arrived in Sydney in February 2017 on a Working Holiday Visa (WHV), hoping to send money to her mother in Indonesia after her father died the year before.
With limited English proficiency, she started working in a shop owned by another Indonesian and was paid about 4 Australian dollars ($2.75) an hour less than the minimum wage, which stood at then at 18.29 Australian dollars ($12.59) per hour.
Being underpaid in one of the world’s most expensive cities, Putri was forced into cramped accommodation – sharing a two-bedroom apartment with 16 people.
In her next job as a server in a pizzeria, she was paid 26 Australian dollars ($17.90) an hour. But here she was repeatedly sexually assaulted.
First, a male colleague groped Putri’s chest in front of the others without consequence. On another occasion, when they were closing up shop in the early morning, he assaulted her again.
“I felt like I just wanted to die. But I kept working because I needed the money,” she said.
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Before the pandemic hit, Australia had the second-largest temporary migrant workforce in the OECD, just behind the United States.
But strict border closures imposed in response to COVID-19 meant the country reported negative net migration in 2020-21 for the first time since World War II.
The Grattan Institute, a think tank, estimates there were 1.5 million temporary migrants in Australia in January 2022, up from almost 2 million in 2019. Australia’s total workforce is 13 .6 million.
Some 190,000 permanent visas were granted each year between 2012 and 2016.
But the number of permanent migrants was falling even before the pandemic as the previous Conservative government imposed an annual cap of 160,000 permanent migrants in 2019.
Even so, around a third of Australia’s population in 2020 was born overseas – with England, India and China providing most of the arrivals.
The decline in the number of migrant workers during COVID-19 has exacerbated existing skills shortages and left businesses, from civil engineering firms to health clinics, care homes and restaurants, without the staff they need.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported a record 480,000 vacancies in May 2022, more than double the number at the start of the pandemic in February 2020.
“As the pandemic has shown us, Australia’s reliance on millions of guest workers is no longer sustainable, not as it ever was,” said Labor Senator Raff Siccone, chair of a Senate committee investigating the effects of temporary migration, when she delivered her findings last September.
The committee concluded that temporary migration agreements increased the likelihood of wage theft and physical and sexual violence against workers.
Audi Firdauz came to Australia on a WHV four years ago and documented his experiences on the #Vlogstralia YouTube channel.
WHVs are valid for 12 months and available to foreigners between the ages of 18 and 35. WHV holders cannot work for the same employer for more than six months.
Some WHV holders, like Audi, have been granted extensions to cover labor shortages during COVID-19.
Subsequent WHVs can be granted if people work in certain industries in specific locations – such as fruit picking – which campaigners say leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by employers.
While Audi enjoyed living in various parts of the country and trying out different jobs, the Jakarta native said he was underpaid in most roles.
While working in a slaughterhouse in the state of New South Wales, for example, he continued to receive an intern’s salary even after completing his six-month internship – 20% less than what he had. been promised.
“The problem was the employment contract. From the beginning, it was only verbal… there was no [written] Contract.”
Firdauz said an Indonesian friend who still works at the slaughterhouse continues to receive an intern’s salary despite having been there for more than three years.
“I want industries in Australia to be better,” he said.
Australia has a patchwork of temporary visas that grant working rights – mostly aimed at low-skilled jobs – from student visas to seasonal work visas mostly extended to citizens of Pacific island nations.
Talipope Kalolo, a 29-year-old from Samoa, told a Senate inquiry in February that he and his compatriots were “treated like slaves” by their employer on a strawberry farm under the seasonal migration scheme, which has since become Australia’s Pacific Labor Mobility Scheme (PALM).
Pacific workers said they only pocketed A$200 ($137.66) for a week of physical work after employers deducted exorbitant amounts from their wages to cover rent, food and travel costs .
Some argue that Australia should also start investing more in migrants already in the country, given that some are underemployed or even banned from working altogether.
Marina Agh, spokeswoman for Professional Migrant Women, told Al Jazeera that the Australian government should “focus not only on bringing in migrants, but also supporting those who are already here”.
“Many of them, women in particular, with qualifications and extensive experience in their country, end up in low-skilled jobs due to multiple barriers to employment,” Agh said.
According to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, around one in three of Australia’s 100,000 asylum seekers on bridging visas are denied the right to work and are forced into illegal employment. Those working illegally are unlikely to report abuse for fear of breaching their visa obligations.
A Home Office spokesman said the government had “zero tolerance for any exploitation of workers, regardless of their visa status”.
It “intends to present a set of measures to combat the exploitation of migrant workers” from 2023, they added.
Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman told Al Jazeera that migrant workers “may be vulnerable due to factors such as limited English or a misunderstanding of their rights under Australian law”.
A spokesperson said there was personalized information on its website “designed to help visa holders understand their rights” and abuses can be reported anonymously through the Fair Work Infoline.
Kunkel of the Migrant Workers Center said there was a need to “provide on-arrival education or even pre-departure education on labor rights” in a range of languages other than English.
“How do you enforce rights that you don’t understand or know you have? »
Putri no longer lives in overcrowded housing and has a job she enjoys as a dog groomer. She is now a permanent resident after marrying another Indonesian citizen with permanent resident status.
She hopes the government will also make mental health support services more affordable so that they are more accessible to migrants.
“A lot of Indonesians here don’t know anyone…so they run to gambling or alcohol,” Putri said.
“I really want people to know [the risks]especially Indonesian women, so they won’t be so innocent coming here.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.