The federal government’s new ministerial working group on vulnerable workers is a good first step but more needs to be done to stamp out the exploitation of international workers, according to a lawyer representing numerous 7-Eleven employees.
Employment minister Michaelia Cash yesterday revealed the government will start developing policies aimed at protecting vulnerable international workers.
The ministerial working group will be chaired by Cash and receive input from small business minister Kelly O’Dwyer, minister for immigration Peter Dutton and the minister for justice Michael Keenan.
Cash said the government is “resolute” in its desire to stamp out the exploitation of workers who might be vulnerable to illegal behaviour because their first language is not English.
“Foreign workers are important contributors to the Australian workforce and we want to ensure they continue to view Australia as a great destination,” Cash said.
The newly-appointed employment minister also tried to hose down concerns the working group would result in more paperwork for Australian businesses.
“This working group will focus on getting fair outcomes for workers, not creating red tape and cost for businesses,” Cash said.
“The government’s message is very clear – the only businesses that should be concerned are those doing the wrong thing.”
The formation of the ministerial working group follows serious allegations made by 7-Eleven employees in regards to underpayments and a cover-up by head office.
If the working group determines changes to the Fair Work Act are required, then the government said it will take these proposals to the next election.
However Giri Sivaraman, employment law principal at Maurice Blackburn, told SmartCompany the working group is just a start.
“The real test will be whether it comes up with practical, enforceable mechanisms to stop the exploitation of international workers,” Sivaraman says.
“I’m representing a lot of 7-Eleven workers at Maurice Blackburn, and I’ve heard first-hand the stories of exploitation.”
Sivaraman says he would like Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to declare an amnesty for 7-Eleven workers who may be scared to come forward in case they are deported for working longer hours than their visa conditions allow.
“Our experience to date is a large number of the workers are scared to come forward because they’re scared of being deported,” he says.
“The only thing we think that can make a difference is if Prime Minister Turnbull actually grants an amnesty.”
Sivaraman also points out international workers need better resources in order to understand their rights.
Otherwise, policymakers and regulators “won’t in any way make a dent” in the exploitation of international workers.
“If you go to the Fair Work Ombudsman’s website, it’s all in English and for an international worker that’s not going to be at all easy to access,” Sivaraman says.
“There should be something clear on the website at the very beginning that says make a complaint here.”