Push to stop backpacker work exploitation

There's been a call for an overhaul of the working holidaymaker scheme.
There's been a call for an overhaul of the working holidaymaker scheme.

The scheme putting backpackers to work in Australia needs an urgent overhaul to reduce rampant exploitation and wage theft.

That's the view of the Migrant Workers Centre in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry examining the working holidaymaker visa.

The centre is calling for the requirement forcing people to secure regional work to extend the backpacker visa for a second or third year to be canned.

Taiwanese backpacker Xuan Hui Lin worked on farms across Queensland picking and packing strawberries, tomatoes, mangoes and other fruit and vegetables.

To secure a third-year visa, she picked cherry tomatoes.

"The company owes me $12,000 in wages. Other workers are also owed unpaid wages. We were all backpackers," she told AAP.

The case is before the Fair Work Ombudsman.

The 21-year-old lost her job because of coronavirus and came to Victoria in search of more work in March.

"I just found a new job in a meat factory but I had to go to the doctor to get shots before starting employment. It's very expensive," she said.

"The borders are shut and it's been difficult to get through COVID without any government support. We cannot even go interstate to look for work because of the lockdown.

"It's really difficult."

Migrant Workers Centre director Matt Kunkel said migrant workers had shouldered the brunt of the pandemic without government support.

"We reject the notion that working holidaymakers are in competition with locals for jobs in regional areas," he told AAP.

The MWC submission also argues to scrap the six-month cap on people staying with the same employer.

To file an unfair dismissal claim, workers must be with an employer for that period.

Mr Kunkel said the limit discourages temporary migrant workers from raising safety or wage theft concerns without unfair sacking protection.

"Conditions like the regional work extension and the six-month employment cap create fertile ground for some employers to avoid their workplace obligations and make it harder for workers to report problems."

The NWC wants criminal sanctions for serious wage theft, with extra penalties for breaches disproportionately affecting temporary migrant workers.

"We must not treat working holidaymakers as an expendable workforce that we rely on when convenient, but neglect when times are tough," Mr Kunkel said.

Australian Associated Press