“Almost unchecked” abuse of migrant workers created a situation where up to 1 in 6 recent migrants to Australia were being paid less than the minimum wage, government ministers have said while introducing major reforms to protect temporary visa holders.

The new reforms, which will be introduced into Parliament in coming weeks, will include measures designed to penalise “unscrupulous employers” who have, Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil said, “routinely exploited” low-wage workers.

“Over the last ten years our migration system has drifted deeper and deeper into reliance on low-paid temporary migrant workers who we know are routinely exploited,” she said as the new changes were announced.

“The fact that this has been happening almost unchecked in our migration system is a reflection on the competency and values of the former government.”

The new measures will include making it a criminal offence to coerce someone into breaching their visa conditions; increasing penalties and new compliance tools to deter exploitation; and providing for ‘prohibition notices’ that can be issued to employers found to have exploited migrants, preventing them from hiring any other people on temporary visas.

The measures will also repeal s235 of the Migration Act – which, the ministers said, “actively undermines people reporting exploitative behaviour” for fear of losing their visa status – and include whistleblower protections that let migrants expose and leave exploitative employers without fear of reprisal.

Government ministers will consult with business, unions and civil society regarding the structure of the protections, as well as working to strengthen the operational “firewall” that keeps the Fair Work Ombudsman and Department of Home Affairs at arm’s length.

Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs Andrew Giles said the changes were crucial to addressing what he called a “crisis of exploitation”.

“When migrant workers are being underpaid, it hurts all of us,” he said, “driving wages and conditions down for everyone…. These reforms will help workers speak up and target those employers who do the wrong thing.”

A $50 million funding boost will support Australian Border Force efforts to enforce the new controls.

A fair deal for all

The changes – which come in the wake of a temporary decision to allow workers on student visas to work more than 40 hours per fortnight without losing their visas – “could be a game-changer for stopping the exploitation of migrant workers in Australia – if they are effectively designed,” said associate professor Bassina Farbenblum, co-executive director of the Migrant Justice Institute and UNSW Faculty of Law and Justice.

“For the first time, migrant workers could safely address wage theft and walk away from employers who exploit them without risking their visa.”

“Dodgy employers will no longer be able to assume that international students and other migrants will suffer in silence if they’re underpaid or abused.”

There were 1.639 million temporary visa holders in Australia on Census night in August 2021, according to the ABS – with carers and aides, road and rail drivers, cleaners and laundry workers, sales assistants and salespersons, and food trades most represented.

Australian authorities granted 39,460 temporary skilled visa applications in the first three quarters of this financial year, according to Home Affairs statistics – a 73 per cent year-on-year increase – with 67,470 primary visa holders in the country as of 31 March.

This includes 4,410 software engineers, 2,250 ICT business analysts, 1,950 developer programmers, 1,400 management consultants, and 870 analyst programmers – a strong showing for an ICT industry that has come to rely on a steady flow of technology and management expertise to fill gaps in domestic supply of skills.

Strengthening the protection of their visas conditions will be crucial in righting the “gross power imbalance” between employers and the students and professionals they hire, Democracy in Colour national director Neha Madhok said as the policy changes were announced.

“Australia’s economy continues to rely on the work of migrants, international students, and others on temporary visas, yet migrants aren’t afforded the same protections as all Australians,” she said.

Without real change, she said, “employers know they can continue practices like wage theft and breaching fair work laws because the visa statuses of migrant workers are not protected or secure…. The government must ensure that all reforms to the migration system truly protect migrant workers and treat everyone in Australia with dignity.”