And so the stories of the exploitation of workers continue. Just in the past few months we have read of the widespread exploitation of workers in 7-Eleven convenience stores and of Pizza Hut delivery drivers. Our organisation knows of people who pick and pack fresh fruit and vegetables being forced to work up to 22 hours a day for as little as $4 per hour. And now comes news that cleaners at the MCG have allegedly been underpaid tens of thousands of dollars. Will this exploitation ever end?
More than 300,000 people are in Australia on temporary work visas (with another 374,570 people on student visas with work rights) and they face the greatest threats of exploitation. Some speak little English, some have had their passports taken away, while others have been promised skilled work yet find themselves working at menial jobs.
A recent Productivity Commission report, the "Workplace Relations Framework", acknowledged the exploitation faced by people on temporary work visas.
Its recommendations would provide protections in some areas, while taking away other important protections.
The commission promotes a model where human trafficking, forced labour and exploitation would be a matter for authorities alone. Yet if they are not provided with sufficient investigative resources, illegal practices may continue to flourish.
The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), which is responsible for identifying dodgy business practices, does a great job considering its limited resources. Unfortunately it can only tackle a tiny fraction of the exploitation taking place on farms and construction sites, and in factories and shops around Australia.
The Productivity Commission makes the commendable recommendation that the FWO's resources be increased. But under this government and its focus on cutting spending, we are not holding our breath.
Temporary workers are often hired by labour hire businesses, some of which, especially the small ones, register using a false business address. An offence under the Corporations Act, such an act immediately raises a red flag, because it means the business owner cannot be located in the event of an investigation.
Yet it appears the Australian Securities and Investments Commission does not have the resources to check that addresses registered with it are legitimate.
A recent example involved chicken giant Baiada, producers of the Lilydale Select and Steggles brands. A series of labour hire companies provided staff to Baiada.
The FWO reported allegations that people were being forced to work up to 18 hours a day, and paid illegally low wages, no superannuation and no overtime by the labour hire businesses employing them.
Several of the businesses in the network also registered false addresses. One used the address of an automotive workshop while two used the addresses of clothing manufacturers. The FWO could not track down the director of the labour hire business JL Poultry. Furthermore, JL Poultry deregistered itself so the FWO was unable to pursue the fines it had imposed. Baiada has now reduced its reliance on small labour hire companies.
If the government is serious about curbing forced labour, it will seek a stronger partnership with community groups.
The federal government has approved a Seasonal Workers Program, which brings over people from the Pacific islands to work on farms. This program has safeguards, yet they have not always been enforced to protect the islanders from exploitation.
In one recent case, a group of men from Nauru alleged irregularities in their pay; the labour hire company was allegedly making deductions for travel costs on days they were not working.
Furthermore, in the work contract submitted to the Department of Employment, the company had listed the local Uniting and Baptist churches and a local soccer club as being willing to provide support to the workers. However, the three groups had not been approached by the company, while the phone numbers listed for all three community groups were disconnected numbers. No one at the department appears to have picked up a telephone to check that this safeguard of community support was in place.
The Productivity Commission's model recommends that individuals on temporary work visas be made more aware of their rights and how to complain when these rights are violated.
This is a good thing. There are barriers to people defending their rights, most notably the fear that complaining will result in the loss of work rights in Australia. The power imbalance is real, so people who have been exploited will be far more likely to take action when they have the support and backing of a union or a community group.
Yet the commission stopped short of formally recommending such a support scheme and has proposed curtailing the ability of unions to take on issues of forced labour and gross exploitation. Under its recommendations, unions would not be able to negotiate the conditions of people working for labour hire companies at the same workplace as union members. In our experience, this would ensure dodgy employers will have a free hand to use the services of even dodgier labour hire companies.
If the government is serious about curbing forced labour, it will seek a stronger partnership with community groups to help empower not only the people on temporary work visas but also unions and community groups that can support them. It would put in place comprehensive legislation that protects workers and promotes their rights, including the right to remain in Australia while pursuing wages lost due to labour hire companies' illegal behaviour.
The government would also require labour hire businesses to be licensed on a public register.
A requirement that people on temporary work visas in industries with a history of exploitation are linked with an appropriate union or community group so they know where to go for support would provide another safeguard.
Mark Zirnsak is Victorian and Tasmanian social justice spokesman, Uniting Church; Heather Moore is national policy and advocacy co-ordinator, The Freedom Partnership – End Modern Slavery, The Salvation Army.