A coalition of community groups has called for better whistleblower protections for people in Australia on working visas following revelations that three-quarters of migrant workers are earning below the casual minimum wage.

A group of 40 legal service providers, unions, ethnic community peak bodies and churches, led by the Human Rights Law Centre and Migrant Justice Institute, issued a policy proposal on Tuesday urging for the introduction of whistleblower protections for migrant workers who report exploitation.

A number of people studying in tech fields on visas in Australia are working on the side to help pay for this, while many migrant workers are employed at tech companies.

Several studies and surveys have found that migrant workers rarely report exploitation and underpayment for fear of losing their job and subsequently their visa, and typically return home at the end of their visa instead of bringing a case forward.

According to a Migrant Justice Institute survey of over 15,000 migrant workers over the last five years, three-quarters of these workers earned below the casual minimum wage in Australia, while a quarter earned less than half that rate.

Nine out of 10 of those surveyed did not take any action about this significant underpayment for fear of jeopardising their visa or ability to remain in Australia.

Whistleblower protections

The proposal is calling for protections against visa cancellations for exploited migrant workers who choose to take action against their employer and have breached their work conditions.

To avoid trivial claims, these will have to be vetted and certified by a government agency, court or specialist legal professional.

The groups also want the introduction of a new short-term visa to allow migrant workers to remain in Australia to pursue a claim against their employer.

This visa would provide security and the ability to continue working in Australia.

“Without the whistleblower protections we’re proposing, employers know they won’t get caught underpaying migrant workers and exploitation will remain business as usual,” Migrant Justice Institute co-executive director Associate Professor Laurie Berg said.

“Harsh penalties for unscrupulous employers are useless if migrant workers are too fearful to report them.”

The number of temporary migrants in Australia has skyrocketed in recent times.

In 2007 there were one million temporary migrants in the country. Today that figure is 1.9 million.

Migration review

The current wholesale review of Australia’s migration system will deliver a report in April, including strategies for faster and increased migrant intake.

On the back of this, there will be hundreds of thousands of migrants returning to Australia, creating an “historic opportunity and urgent need to implement these reforms within the next six months”, the groups said.

“It is immoral for the government to draw migrants and international students back to Australia knowing full well that it hasn’t fixed the problems that will lead to many of them being exploited and unable to speak up,” Migrant Justice Institute co-executive director Associate Professor Bassina Farbenblum said.

“Enabling exploited migrant workers to speak up is sensible government policy. After a decade of government inaction, these reforms will finally make a dent on migrant exploitation without creating red tape for businesses doing the right thing.”

The new whistleblower protections should be the “cornerstone” of the government’s migration reforms, Human Rights Law Centre managing lawyer Sanmati Verma said.

“The conditions for exploitation are built into our visa system,” Verma said.

“If migrant workers can’t speak up without fear of losing their place in Australia, most will never come forward. When they leave Australia, new migrant workers will simply replace them in those exploitative jobs.”

The current Assurance Protocol between the Department of Home Affairs and the Fair Work Commission, meant to fulfil this purpose, has been “largely ineffective” and only used 76 times in five years.

The federal government last year committed to opening 6,800 extra permanent migration places for workers in the tech sector.

Earlier this month, the Labor government announced it would be extending the length of time migrant tech graduates can stay and work in Australia for a further two years.

A recent ACS Think Tank Panel heard from experts who said the Australian visa policy is “difficult to navigate” and has become a “political football”.

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said this month that Australia’s visa system is inadequate, archaic and in need of urgent reform.

“Our migration system has been on continental drift for a decade,” O’Neil said.

“We have a broken system that is unstrategic, complex, expensive and slow. And it’s not delivering for business, migrants or for our population.”