Migrant Workers Centre demands end to exploitation

After years of systemic wage theft from migrant workers, the Migrant Workers Centre has demanded major changes to the Working Holiday Maker (WHM) program to better protect vulnerable people on the visa:

The exploitation of backpackers on working holiday visas is rife and demands an urgent overhaul of the migration scheme, a parliamentary inquiry has been warned…

The Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) used its latest committee hearing on Wednesday to issue a plea for reforms to the program to more strongly protect migrants on the scheme…

MWC director Matt Kunkel said program failures have led to widespread mistreatment of working holiday makers by employers and labour hire firms.

“The country needs to urgently address the structural vulnerability of working holiday makers by reforming this visa system,” he told the committee.

“The fundamental shortcomings of this visa class … both disadvantage workers and provide fertile ground for unscrupulous employers to exploit those workers”…

The MWC’s recommendations include scrapping a six-month restriction that prevents backpackers from staying on longer with an employer…

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

It also wants to end the requirement of regional work for working holiday makers to extend visas for a second or third year.

It’s like Groundhog Day.

Recall that in 2016 the Fair Work Ombudsman completed an inquiry into Australia’s backpacker visa scheme, which found that “many backpackers are being subjected to underpayment or non-payment, unlawful deductions, sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions and other forms of exploitation”.

The Senate report, entitled A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders, documented widespread abuse of Australia’s Working Holiday Maker visa program, which was “consistently reported to suffer widespread exploitation in the Australian workforce”.

The 2017 National Temporary Migrant Work Survey found that one in every seven temporary migrant fruit and vegetable pickers were paid $5 an hour or less, and a third $10 an hour or less.

In 2018, a group of academics jointly penned an article in Fairfax claiming that exploitation of temporary migrant farm workers is rife:

Australia already has more backpackers, and relies more strongly on them for horticultural work, than any country…

Unlike agricultural visas in New Zealand, Canada and the United States, and unlike Australia’s own Pacific seasonal worker program, there is no pre-approval of employers. Nor is there systematic ongoing regulation to ensure compliance with workplace laws…

Story after story after story have exposed exploitation on farms…

More “systemic exploitation” of migrant workers on Australia’s farms was exposed last year and this year.

The fact of the matter is that it has been five years since the 7-Eleven migrant worker scandal first broke, and since then there has been a never-ending flow of stories emerging about the systemic abuse of Australia’s various migrant worker programs and visa system.

Indeed, the Migrant Workers Taskforce’s 141-page report, released in March 2019, found that “wage underpayment is widespread and has become more entrenched over time”, with as many as half of all migrant workers exploited.

The reality is that you cannot run mass immigration into an economy with a large output gap (that is, too much supply) without wage theft happening. No amount of policing from an under-resourced FWO will prevent it. There are too many scams and they are everywhere, driven by a permanent labour force supply shock as cheap foreign bodies endlessly flow in. This is made worse by the importation of unscrupulous practices from foreign lands, with migrant business owners typically exploiting migrant staff of the same nationality.

Wage theft is not a quirk of the system, it is the system. And if the Morrison Government is allowed to reboot mass immigration into vast post-COVID economic slack then it will intensify beyond belief.

If you want to stop the wage theft and falling wages then stop mass immigration. Cut foreign students (by lifting entry standards and financial capacity). Cut temporary workers. And halve the permanent migrant intake to 80,000 targeted at critical (highly paid) skills only.

Failing to do so will only lead to more of the same, with endless hand wringing over stolen wages and exploitation.

Leith van Onselen


  1. Heard it on the radio this AM that WA government is allocating a $3M relief package to encourage people to work on farms because of the skill shortages and no backpackers. Can’t remember all of the details, and quick search didn’t yield any results, but I think it’s like $40 per day accommodation assistance for people to travel to regions to work on farms. All of this is caused by lack of workers, something along the lines of “jobs Australians won’t do”. So, the question posed to the listeners (target audience of 50+) was: “Would you leave Perth for a year and travel the WA while picking fruit and doing other farm work?”

    Maybe, just for starters, these jobs ought to offer a real wage. State’s unemployment is 8.7%, so I am certain that there are workers available, just not for the backpacker wages. Sh!ts me to no end. Yes, cost of produce will go up, mainly because farmers will have to charge more than pennies at the wholesale, so the two major chains (W&C) can make a killing. Maybe an amendment to the grocery code of conduct is in the cards.

    • I’ve pondering the itinerant workers needed for harvest jobs for a while. I proposed an idea here a month or so back that govt should offer free/subsidised uni for students who do harvest work, maybe NT farmers association was reading here:


      Had some further thoughts today – I’d take harvest work if it was full time and I could plan a future with it, not like the current system based on hand to mouth itinerant existence. I understand that farms don’t need all the staff year round but how about local regional hubs have some form of co-op that can employ full-time staff that can live permanently in an area with minimal travel required to go to the different seasonal harvests of the co-op members. Surely this would be easy enough to organise and would benefit all Australians.

      • RobotSenseiMEMBER

        Pretty easy to sit in an office in metropolia, gaze out over the CBD and wonder “what fools for missing an opportunity like this!” March down to the local Big 4 and see how many zeroes you can get with “fruit picker” listed as profession. I bet that answer is also zero.

    • I didn’t catch the full story but on the news this morning I think they said that Directors of businesses that were found guilty of wage theft in QLD could face jail time. In QLD only …

  2. You know the Nats aren’t going to want to turn off the tap to their rural mates – if the city gets to exploit ubereats drivers then sure as sh*t the farmers get to exploit the backpackers …

  3. Greedy farmers have far too much land and far too many fruit trees to handle.

    If they can’t handle a farm of that size without foreign slaves they should downsize.

    The cities are full of people who would love a chance to own a small farm and tend to a few fruit trees themselves without slaves. The answer is obvious.

  4. The entire working holiday / backpacker visa category should be scrapped.

    What used to be quaint if somewhat naive 1970’s concept of ‘cultural exchange’ with a young person from Europe or the US coming to live in Australia in our remote & rural areas / then returning back to their home country enriched by that ….

    … has now become an open sore of mostly third world slum life being trafficked in as migrant guestworkers to live & work illegally.

    Firstly to destroy a few myths
    1. The migrant guestworkers are not exploited.
    They know the score exactly. It’s a pretext make work visa extension racket. Just like the ‘foreign students’ paying for nonsense courses with no international accreditation.
    These third world migrants entered Australia with the intent to lie, cheat & steal and willing pay bribes and collude to do the ‘pretext rural & farm work’ tour of duty to get the visa extension.
    The only ones who ever complain are the very occasional UK or European backpacker who never had the whole corrupt racket explained to them.

    2. Very few of these backpackers actually work on farms, and that’s only the ones who can’t afford to pay the agents & farmers the $5,000 for the pretext ‘make work’ visa extension’ with falsified documents.
    As a fact check: In 2019 the DHA records show that only 31% of the backpacker working holiday intake actually did any rural work (to then secure a visa extension).
    That is only for 3 months (90 days), very few continue past the mandatory period- so in reality only 8% of the backpackers / working holiday were engaged in any rural or farm work over 1 year.

    Which means over a 1 year period – 92% of the backpackers in Australia were not engaged in any rural or farm work.
    👉🏾They are all instead in the vast fetid migrant slums of Sydney & Melbourne, working illegally.

    Like the corrupt Uni’s & Colleges who prostitute themselves to provide an alibi for migrant guestworkers as so called ‘foreign students’…
    … Our farmers and the foreign run labor trafficking rings also do the same.

    3. Everyone is in on the pretext farm work for visa extension racket.

    The agent will typically charge $5k to $8k to the third world migrant guestworkers to organise the pretend farm rural work.
    The farmer will then take up to half that fee & either provide falsified records, or if the applicant goes thru with it the farmer will typically put aside a paddock & some old sheds and then organise some pretend weeding or cropping.

    The farmers and their labor ring organisers will then charge food & accomodation fees & so on and that can take up to half the pretend make work wages paid.

    For a number of smaller farmers this migrant visa extension cash flow is a goldmine – and that’s why you see the farmer lobby so openly supporting this racket.

    4. Once the third world migrant has the visa extension then they are immediately back to the migrant slums in Sydney or Melbourne to continue to steal an Australian job, to live in fetid overcrowded cash in hand bunk share and to continue on in further attempts in visa extension or visa churn to be student or
    protection visa etc.


    The whole backpacker working holiday visa intent is corrupted from top to bottom.

    It needs to be shut down, their visas cancelled and the third world migrant detritus deported.

    If we want genuine third world migrant guestworkers to work in the rural areas then introduce / expand the farm worker visa category with legal pay rates, officially approved accomodation and sponsor/ location controls.

    So they are only in the country to work at approved locations and on Australian pay rates.