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Half of migrant workers in Australia feel unsafe at work, survey finds

Half of all migrant workers in Australia feel unsafe at work, experiencing discrimination, bullying, and verbal abuse, while 58% experienced wage theft, new research has found.

The Migrant Workers Centre surveyed more than 1000 workers in Australia about their experiences in the job market and migration system, and found many migrants experienced discrimination in job application processes because of their visa status, despite having work rights, which pushed them towards insecure work and exploitative employers.

Job insecurity was strongly correlated with feeling unsafe in the workplace, with 59% of workers in precarious employment feeling always or often unsafe at work.

Of those who experienced wage theft, only 26% were able to recoup their stolen wages. Wage-theft practices included paying low rates cash-in-hand, not paying penalty rates for weekend or after-hours work, and illegal unpaid “trial” shifts.

Matt Kunkel, chief executive of the Migrant Workers’ Centre, said the report clearly showed that temporary visas were a workplace-safety issue.

“Urgent action is required to reform our system. Improving job safety and security for migrant workers will create a fairer job market for everyone,” Kunkel said.

He described the “perverse outcome” of the “dual market” created by Australia’s visa system whereby skilled migrants need to obtain a permanent job to get a permanent visa, but find they are discriminated against for permanent jobs when they do not have a permanent visa.

Permanent residency is not a legal requirement to get a job in Australia but was treated like one by many businesses, the report found. At the same time, the process of getting previous skills and experience recognised by potential employers was often decentralised and very complicated.

Antonio Michell, 36, had been a specialist physiotherapist in Chilean hospital for eight years before he migrated to Australia with his wife and then 11-month-old daughter in 2017. After arriving, however, he struggled to find work in his field, resorting to cash-in-hand, one-off and casual jobs in construction, hospitality, plumbing, and cleaning.

Michell said he felt unsafe almost constantly in these roles, and described experiences of unsafe work practices coupled with wage theft.

“Sometimes I was doing things that were not supposed to be done by me,” Michell said.

“Sometimes in construction they were asking me to do demolition jobs – which is a specialised job, and should be paid accordingly. And they were asking me to do it as a labourer. Someone was getting paid that money, but it wasn’t me.”

The process of attempting to get his previous physiotherapy experience and qualifications recognised was arduous and expensive, requiring a lot of paperwork and a long waiting time to complete each step.

Balancing all these costs with precarious, low-paid employment and no local rental history saw Michell and his family renting a single room in a shared apartment for $500 a week in southern Sydney while they tried to find work that suited their skills.

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Michell said Australia was still feeling the repercussions of prime minister Scott Morrison’s declaration in April 2020, at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, that international students and migrant workers should leave the country.

“I have so many friends that left the week after that. They had masters degrees, so many skills and good jobs, but they said, ‘nobody’s going to help us. Why would I want to be stuck here when nobody’s going to help us?’” Michell said.

“The image that Australia gave to immigrants was so horrible. If you asked me would I recommend an immigrant to come here right now, I’d give them options to go to other places, where their experience would be respected, and where the immigration process would help them plan ahead.”

In October last year, the department of home affairs announced a broad-scope review of the migration system. Kunkel said the Migrant Workers’ Centre would like to see the government take the findings of their report into account in that review.

“Not only does the system push people into jobs that they’re overqualified for but into jobs that are unsafe,” Kunkel said.

Kunkel wants to see the government introduce policy measures that ban employers from discriminating against migrant workers in job applications processes, and recognises migration policy as a workplace health and safety issue.

“We see engineers mowing lawns and doctors driving Ubers. That’s a huge disadvantage not only to the workers themselves but to society that really needs the skills and experience that migrant workers bring to this country.”

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