Using footage from secret cameras, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) found some migrants were being paid well under the legal minimum and working up to 18 hours a day in harsh conditions.
“There’s slave labour in this country,” National Party member of parliament Keith Pitt told the Four Corners programme about workers picking and packing foods for supermarket shelves.
“It’s something we need to get rid of.”
The Australian government said the allegations were concerning and has urged people to come forward to report employers who are exploiting workers.
“While the majority of employers do the right thing and treat their workers with the decency they deserve, we have a responsibility to ensure we are doing all we can to address the instances where workers’ rights are being compromised,” Assistant Minister for Immigration Michaelia Cash said.
Cash said the Immigration Department was investigating the employment of those holding 417 working holiday visas by labour contracting firms.
The Four Corners programme interviewed young workers who were thousands of dollars underpaid, in some cases earning less than the minimum wage on their late-night and early-morning shifts.
In one instance a group of labourers from Hong Kong and Taiwan picking cucumbers in Queensland were being paid Aus$13-14 (US$10.19-10.97) an hour for backbreaking work while Australian workers doing the same job were paid more than Aus$20.
“I’ve thought this is very unfair ever since I came here,” said one tearful worker from Hong Kong, where the minimum wage is equivalent to Aus$5.31 an hour.
Workers employed under unscrupulous labour contractors in Australia were also toiling under false names and in the case of vulnerable women, faced sexual harassment, said the report which focused on exploitation in several states including Victoria.
“Heap of crooks”
Natalie Hutchins, Victoria’s industrial relations minister, said the state government was forming a committee to conduct an inquiry aimed at cracking down on illegal operators.
“This is not just about the underpayment of wages — this is about creating an underclass of foreign workers,” she posted on her Facebook site.
“The Victorian government will also advocate for a national response to what is a national shame.”
MP Pitt also called for the government to fund a task force to go undercover to investigate the exploitation of workers to try to crack down on this.
“I would think you would find that there’s effectively a whole heap of crooks making an awful lot of money out of the exploitation of a whole lot of people who really don’t know any different,” he told the ABC.
The Labour opposition, which helped instigate a national Senate hearing into visas, which is due to report back later this year, said working holiday visas were for young people who want to holiday and work in Australia for up to a year.
“It must not be used as a backdoor avenue to source cheap labour on conditions the community would find appalling,” said opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles.
Migrant workers are essential to Australia’s agriculture sector, and without them there would be chronic labour shortages at peak harvest times, the National Farmers Federation said.
“There are strong laws in place to prevent this kind of (unscrupulous) activity, and we need to make sure they are effective on the ground,” said the group’s president Brent Finlay. — AFP