Australian employers have been warned they face a two-year prison sentence if migrant workers are exploited under a fresh government crackdown.
Reforms to expand protections for some of the most vulnerable in the workforce will be introduced to federal parliament within weeks.
The proposed changes would make it a criminal offence to coerce someone into breaching their visa conditions and extend the allowable time between employer sponsors to 180 days.
They would also stop employers who have previously exploited workers from hiring people on temporary visas under new “prohibition notices”.
Last week, the Australian Border Force fined Perth-based bubble tea company Utopia $13,320 for underpaying sponsored workers. It also banned the company from sponsoring workers for two years.
But under current regulations, the company is free to continue hiring other workers who hold temporary visas, such as international students and backpackers.
Immigration Minister Andrew Giles said he would work with the Fair Work Ombudsman to establish best practice on how to close that loophole.
“There will also be triggers for deliberate and repeated cases of noncompliance by employers,” he said in a speech at Victorian Trades Hall.
“In industries where exploitation is particularly widespread – accommodation, food services, cleaning and construction – this is a necessary step to show we can tackle exploitation where it is most prevalent.
“At its heart, immigration is about nation-building, but we cannot build our nation on the back of those being exploited. Exploitation is a sign of weakness, a smallness of character.”
One in six migrants are paid less than the national minimum wage, a recent analysis by the Grattan Institute showed.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil said migrant exploitation was a “national shame”.
But she conceded “more needs to be done” to ensure migrant workers were able to enforce their “workplace rights without jeopardising their ability to stay in the country”.
Democracy in Colour national director Neha Madhok agreed.
“Most migrants who find themselves in discriminatory or exploitative conditions say nothing because they fear risking their visa status and employability,” they said.
The reforms would also include repealing a section of the Migration Act that the government said “undermines” people from reporting exploitative behaviour.
The government said it would continue to consult with business and unions on protections for potential whistleblowers and strengthen a “firewall” between the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Home Affairs department.
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