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‘A crisis of exploitation’: Measures to protect Australia’s migrant workforce

14 June 2023

3 min read

#Workplace Relations & Safety, #Immigration Law

Published by:

Kate Wilkie

‘A crisis of exploitation’: Measures to protect Australia’s migrant workforce

With up to one in six recent migrants being paid less than the statutory minimum wage, the Federal Government has responded to what it calls “a crisis of exploitation” by introducing a number of legislative reform to better protect visa holders working in Australia. Key changes include harsher penalties and potential jail time for employers who try to take advantage of their migrant workers.


The measures announced by the Federal Government follow the recommendations contained in the 2019 Report of the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce headed by Australian Economist, Professor Allan Fels. The report followed revelations of significant wage underpayments and poor working conditions in certain industry sectors, with particular focus on temporary migrants. Although 7-Eleven was at the forefront of media attention following the discovery of systemic underpayments in their franchises, the report revealed that the problem is widespread.

On 5 June 2023, Ministers Burke, O’Neil, and Giles jointly flagged key legislative changes to the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) to:

  • make it a criminal offence for people to coerce someone into breaching their visa conditions
  • bar businesses from further hiring people on temporary visas where they have exploited migrants via the introduction of prohibition notices
  • increase penalties and compliance tools to deter exploitation  
  • repeal section 235, which makes it an offence for a non-citizen to contravene conditions of their visa and was perceived to discourage reporting of exploitative behaviour.

Legislation for these changes will be introduced to Federal Parliament within weeks.

Protections for visa holders

The Government has committed to work with unions, industry, and key stakeholders to introduce future reforms, including:

  • strengthening the existing “assurance protocol” to protect visa holders who go to the Fair Work Ombudsman for assistance
  • piloting a new “whistle-blower visa” to allow migrant workers to stay in Australia while they pursue an exploitation claim
  • allowing visa holders up to 180 days to find a new employer sponsor to ease the pressure faced by exploited workers to continue working in poor conditions.


The Government will allocate $50 million in extra funding to the Australian Border Force to enforce these changes using new compliance tools yet to be introduced. Existing financial sanctions will also be increased, and in some cases tripled.

The Government has also committed to “strengthen the firewall” between the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Department of Home Affairs to encourage whistleblowing and protect visa holders who report employer exploitation. 

Key takeaways

As the reforms roll out over the coming weeks and months, businesses that engage visa holders will need to pay close attention, considering the possibility of being banned from future hiring if found guilty of exploiting migrant workers.

Individuals who deal with visa holders, including management, human resource staff and legal advisors, should familiarise themselves with their obligations and the introduction of criminal sanctions for those found to have coerced workers into breaching their visa conditions. Once more is understood regarding how that provision will be enacted and enforced, internal training is advisable.

If you have any questions about the reforms and how they might impact your business, please get in touch with our national Workplace Relations & Safety team below.

The information in this article is of a general nature and is not intended to address the circumstances of any particular individual or entity. Although we endeavour to provide accurate and timely information, we do not guarantee that the information in this article is accurate at the date it is received or that it will continue to be accurate in the future.

Published by:

Kate Wilkie

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