SYDNEY: Australia faced growing calls Tuesday to crack down on the exploitation of migrants labouring in farms and factories, after a television investigation claimed foreigners toiled in conditions akin to “slave labor”.
Using footage from secret cameras, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation found migrants were being paid well under the legal minimum and working up to 18 hours a day in harsh conditions.
“There’s slave labor in this country,” National Party member of parliament Keith Pitt told the Four Corners programme about workers picking and packing foods for supermarket shelves.
“It’s something we need to get rid of.”
The program interviewed young workers who were thousands of dollars underpaid, in some cases earning less than the minimum wage on their late-night and early-morning shifts.
In one instance, a group of laborers from Hong Kong and Taiwan picking cucumbers in Queensland were being paid Aus$13-14 (US$10.19-10.97) an hour for backbreaking work while Australian workers doing the same job were paid more than Aus$20.
“I’ve thought this is very unfair ever since I came here,” said one tearful worker from Hong Kong, where the minimum wage is equivalent to Aus$5.31 an hour.
Workers employed under unscrupulous labour contractors in Australia were also toiling under false names and in the case of vulnerable women, faced sexual harassment, said the report which focused on exploitation in several states including Victoria.
Natalie Hutchins, Victoria’s industrial relations minister, said the state government was forming a committee to conduct an inquiry aimed at cracking down on illegal operators and would push for a national response.
“This is not just about the underpayment of wages — this is about creating an underclass of foreign workers,” she posted on her Facebook site.
“The Victorian government will also advocate for a national response to what is a national shame.”
Pitt also called for the government to fund a task force to go undercover to investigate the exploitation of workers to “try to crack down on this”.
“I would think you would find that there’s effectively a whole heap of crooks making an awful lot of money out of the exploitation of a whole lot of people who really don’t know any different,” he told the ABC.
The Labor opposition, which helped instigate a national Senate hearing into visas which is due to report back later this year, urged the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott immediately to look into the allegations of exploitation.
“The 417 Working Holiday Visa is for young people who want to holiday and work in Australia for up to a year,” said opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles.
“It must not be used as a backdoor avenue to source cheap labor on conditions the community would find appalling.”
The government made no immediate comment.
Migrant workers are essential to Australia’s agriculture sector, and without them there would be chronic labor shortages at peak harvest times, the National Farmers Federation said.
It said the television program highlighted the need to do more to get rid of employers who ignored Australia’s laws and took advantage of vulnerable workers.
“While most employers do the right thing, not all do,” said the group’s president Brent Finlay.
“Individuals who act outside the law drag the rest of the industry down. There are strong laws in place to prevent this kind of activity, and we need to make sure they are effective on the ground.”
Australian supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths said their suppliers complied with Australian law and paid their workers all their entitlements.