New centre fights exploitation of migrant workers

The Migrant Workers Centre is part of a wider push to empower a part of the workforce who have long complained of exploitation. Source: AAP

A new service in Victoria, The Migrant Workers Centre, is hoping to get the state's newest workers a fair deal.

For many migrants, working in Australia can be confusing.

Many employers have also been found to take advantage of unsuspecting workers.

Today, the Victorian Trades Hall Council has launched The Migrant Workers Centre: a place devoted to looking after the state's newest workers.

Director of the Centre, Matt Kunkel, told SBS News a hub where workers on temporary and permanent visas can go to learn about their rights was long overdue.

"It’s much harder for people of colour and workers out there from a migrant background to get treated fairly at work," he said. "It’s also not just that migrant workers are vulnerable, it’s that bosses are also doing the wrong thing."

"What we’re really seeing is a wide range of people coming in from all industries and over the place, and the thing that they have in common is that nobody taught them or told them what their rights at work were."

While issues migrant workers report vary from language barriers to a perceived lack of respect, underpayment or non-payment of wages is the main concern.

Mr Kunkel said he knows of several migrant workers who have not received super payments for six months.

"In those circumstances we’re looking at several thousands of dollars of unpaid superannuation for each of these workers. It all really adds up."

'I feel very sad'

Taqi Khan is part of the National Union of Workers, where he looks after migrant farmworkers - a group which has reported particularly high rates of exploitation.

Australia's agricultural sector, which is deeply reliant on migrant workers, has come under fire for how it treats migrants filling its lower-skilled jobs.

Unions told a 2016 senate inquiry that exploitation of seasonal farm workers was commonpalce, something echoed by the Fair Work Ombudsman's interim findings of a three-year investigation into exploitation in Australia's horticulture industry earlier this year.

In June, SBS News reported on the death of Fijian worker in the regional Victorian town of Shepparton.

The death brought the number of Pacific Islander fatalities on Australian farms to 14 in six years.

Around $580,000 in funding for legal support and workplace rights education was announced in July, but Mr Khan said more needs to be done.

"I feel very sad when migrant workers have a lot of issues," he told SBS News.

"In Iran and Pakistan, workers are treated very badly because they are migrants. But it should not be the case in Australia - Australia is a first world country. In this kind of country everyone should respect human rights."

Australia's agricultural sector has been criticised for the way it has treated migrant workers.
Australia's agricultural sector has been criticised for the way it has treated migrant workers.
Migrant Workers Centre Facebook

The Victorian Labor government has pledged to make wage theft a crime if it's re-elected in November.

Matt Kunkel is calling on all governments, state and federal, to do more to keep migrant workers from being treated like an underclass.

"We need to start seeing our leaders unite us. They need to start to try to bring us together and start looking after the things that we all need - like jobs, health and education."

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