Backpackers at risk of 'black market' labour exploitation

CITRUS PICKING: Back packers hit the trees when the fruit is at its best. Photo Noel Thompson / Central & North Burnett Times
CITRUS PICKING: Back packers hit the trees when the fruit is at its best. Photo Noel Thompson / Central & North Burnett Times Picasa

TWO thirds of more than 4,000 backpackers surveyed said they thought Aussie employers were exploiting them by undercutting their pay, a Fairwork inquiry has found.

Sixty per cent of respondents went on to say they were scared to report underpayment of wages in case employers refused to "sign off" on hours.

Less than half - 38% - said they felt positive about their time in 88-day compulsory work stints, usually on farms, completed in order to qualify for a second year in Australia.

The Fairwork Ombudsman has launched more than 25 "dedicated investigations" and is "pursuing a number of enforcement actions" in relation to the controversial 417 Australian Working Holiday Visa program, also known as Backpacker Visas.

Last week Ombudsman Natalie James released a report of findings from a two-year inquiry into the program and calling for "a clear mission to close the loopholes being used by those deliberately exploiting visa holders for profit".

Lismore and surrounding regions were an area of focus for the inquiry.

Backpacker Visa holders asking the Ombudsman for help nearly doubled from 23% of all working visa holders in 2011-2012 to 44% in 2015-2016.

When the program first started, farmers didn't necessarily have to pay the workers and allegations of exploitation emerged, said Ms James in the report.

More than a third of working backpackers said they were paid less than the minimum wage of $17.70 per hour; in 2015 -2016 the Ombudsman recovered $1.37 million in wages for Backpacker Visa holders.

Fourteen per cent of those surveyed said they had to pay in advance just to get regional work.

Six per cent said they had to pay employers to "sign off' on their hours.

Some backpackers reported employer deductions from their pay with only 21% of such agreements put into writing as per law.

"The backpacker labour-force is vital to some industries associated with food production in regional areas but we are at risk of it being a black-market, exploited labour-force if the settings remain the same" said Ms James.

She called for academics and migration experts to share their expertise on how best to solve the challenges.

The Inquiry was held alongside another inquiry into horticulture: the Harvest Trail Inquiry, a four-year effort due for reports in 2017.

The Ombudsman found that many backpackers were unaware of their working rights in Australia, especially backpackers from Asia.

The Ombudsman furthermore found that some "unscrupulous employers" were "targeting this cohort, especially via social media and websites".

Sexual harassment was also a problem, along with other dangerous working conditions and the Ombudsman was particularly concerned about young "females with limited English travelling alone.... in remote areas to undertake specified work".

"Business models" were built around work with "associated accommodation", the Ombudsman said.

The models then included "unlawful deductions on pay" - presumably for accommodation - and "charging fees" to find work for unwitting / intimidated backpackers.

Other models had backpackers doing unpaid work in exchange for accommodation on top of their 88 days of paid work or just to have the paid work "signed off" by employers (backpackers had to provide employer-signed evidence to the Immigration Department).

The Inquiry also found examples of "employers and hostels withholding passports without authority"; "employers engaging in sophisticated labour supply chains involving sham contracting, with visa-holders being engaged as contractors and not employees"; and "employers requiring visa-holders to pay money up-front for tools and equipment that the business was legally required to provide".

Matters were complicated by the fact that working backpackers from Taiwan and South Korea, the two highest users of second-year 417 visas in 2014, were used to wages less than half the Aussie minimum wage and were often willing to accept conditions beneath Australian standards.

Ms James said a theme from the Inquiry had appeared where both employers and employees involved in the 417 visa program saw it as a "working" visa rather than a holiday visa.

The compulsory 88-day working component of 417 visas comprised 12.5% of the total time eligible backpackers were entitled to holiday in Australia but the report suggested that most backpackers worked far more than legally required.

Topics:  417 working holiday visas backpackers exploitation fair work australia fair work ombudsman fruit picking minimum wage natalie james

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