Australia needs low paid workers. Farmers are constantly looking for people willing to pick the fruits during the fruit-picking seasons.
Since last year there has been a spate of media exposés regarding the ruthless exploitation of migrant workers hired by contractors. Some are foreign students who are allowed to work for 20 hours and others are on tourist visas and are found to be working illegally. Task Force Cadena was created to protect and deal with the increase of illegal migrant workers. It is a matter of concern that when illegal migrant workers are discovered, they are arrested and immediately put into detention.
Last year, in Carabooda, Perth, about 127 strawberry workers were found working illegally. NGOs such as Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH), of which I am a member, were surprised at the speed in which these workers were deported. Many of them had been from Malaysia. They were supposed to be interviewed but it is difficult to see how the officials were able to interview so many within the 24-hour time frame.
I was in Perth in September and visited the strawberry farm in Carabooda. The farm was surrounded by walls and I was amazed to see CCTV cameras on top of the walls. Nearby farms did not have these cameras.
On our annual advocacy visit to Parliamentarians, Government Agencies and Embassies in September, we raised our concerns and asked whether the workers were told of their rights and had access to legal advice. No one was able to give us an answer then. In Australia all workers, including those working illegally, can get their wages from the employer through the office of the Fair Work Ombudsman. However, there is great concern that it is mandatory that anyone who has been working illegally has to be reported to Immigration by this office.
The greater crime of being exploited or having been forced into labour has precedence over the lesser crime of working illegally.
In August 2016, 34 Malaysians, including 2 minors, were found working on a blueberry farm in NSW. They were arrested and put into Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (VIDC). This time around the 34 illegal Malaysian workers in NSW were interviewed by Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Border Protection. However, knowing that they had been caught working illegally and being wary of Immigration and AFP, they elected to return home. As far as we know they had no access to independent advice. This is a concern, especially when they have been exploited and could be fearful of repercussions on them and/or their families. We are not aware that they were given the option of speaking to someone like me (who is on the spot) or NGOs who offer free legal advice.
ACRATH had the opportunity to ask about legal advice being given to the illegal workers and was told that they had been given a phone book to find a lawyer. Being handed a phone book is not the answer, especially for the overseas farm worker whose English is often limited.
Detention is not the answer and once workers have been given good legal advice they need time to evaluate their options. This does not seem to be available.
Being a regular visitor to VIDC, I came into contact with a Malaysian who spoke to me about finding online advertisements regarding working on farms in Australia. Some are Phoenix (bogus) companies and ask for 5,000 to 6,000 ringgit (Malaysian dollars) to assist the enquirer find a place to stay and a list of farms where the person can work. The working hours are harsh and if they are lucky to get any wages, they are paid a pittance, not paid according to Australian rates.
Since last year NGOs have been advocating that the Federal Government license labour hire companies as a way to protect migrant workers. The state of Victoria has now taken the lead in doing so.
The East Timorese Embassy has two registered companies through which their nationals can find work. This is well monitored as there are unannounced visits to the workplace and to the workers. This is a model for the protection of migrant workers that can be adapted to our current situation.
We have also had 120 media items regarding the exploitation of workers by the 7 Eleven Stores. Those affected are mainly students who have to work long hours, beyond their legal 20 hours, if they want to keep their jobs.
There was a front page story in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 November which exposed the ruthless exploitation of illegal farm workers by labour hire contractors and middlemen in NSW and Victoria.
One recommendation is that the Federal Government licenses Labour Hire Companies which are well monitored and that there is a list of such companies to prevent the exploitation of workers, who have to work long hours under harsh conditions and are underpaid or even unpaid.
Another recommendation is for the Federal Government to work in collaboration with Asia Pacific Governments (through the Bali Process) and through the Embassies, staff of which are concerned about the welfare of their Nationals and are here to protect them. There is a need to come up with a list of legitimate licensed labour hire companies which are well monitored and to look at ways to stop internet scams eg those on Facebook in Malaysia.
To read more from Sr Margaret Ng, please click here. You may like to visit the website of Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans. Read end of mission statement by UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants on his official visit to Australia (1-18 November 2016) here.