Migrant workers would be better protected from being pressured into exploitative work under new laws to crackdown on unscrupulous employers.
A new bill has been unveiled for consultation by the federal government, proposing new criminal offences and civil penalties to safeguard workers on visas.
The government is attempting to present a firm stance on stamping out the exploitation ahead of the introduction of a new agricultural visa.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the proposed bill sends a strong message that wage underpayment and other exploitative practices are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
“We know the majority of Australian businesses and employers do the right thing but there are still a small number of unscrupulous employers who find ways to exploit migrants,” he said.
Unions have persistently warned of widespread underpayment and poor conditions faced by migrant workers in the sector, particularly those on piece rates.
Under the new laws it would be an offence to coerce migrant workers to accept work that breaches their work-related visa conditions.
It would also be an offence to use visa requirements to pressure migrant workers to accept work, or the threat of an adverse outcome on an individual’s immigration status.
Another provision would prohibit certain employers who have breached aspects of the Migration Act or the Fair Work Act 2009 from employing additional non-citizen employees for a specified period.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has indicated the government wants to implement a new agricultural visa targeting 10 ASEAN countries by the end of the year.
The visa would be aimed at addressing workforce shortages with the sector severely impacted by travel restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Migration Amendment (Protecting Migrant Workers) Bill 2021 would establish stronger tools for the Australian Border Force to work with employers to improve compliance.
It would also increase the civil penalties for breaches of work-related provisions in the Migration Act.
Mr Hawke has indicated the government is also making regulatory changes it says would increase the safety and welfare of working holiday makers.
These visa holders are currently required to complete 88 days regional work in their first year to be eligible to extend their stay in Australia.
The changes would create a list of specified businesses to be excluded from counting towards extending an individual's visas because of their poor practices.
Businesses would be considered for the listing if they have convictions relating to the safety and welfare of employees. They would be provided a right of reply before this action took place.
Consultation on the exposure draft for the new migration laws would end 16 August.