Monday, September 30, 2019

Today by Elle Hardy

Second-class citizens
The government’s failure to close a loophole exposing vulnerable workers speaks volumes

© Lukas Coch / AAP Image

Guardian Australia today reported on a disturbing a loophole that is being used to cheat migrant workers out of wages and entitlements. What’s more, the federal government knows about it and has failed for six months to act on recommendations that would help foreign labourers.

The Migrant Workers Centre told Guardian Australia that some companies employing large numbers of migrants are deliberately using liquidation as a tactic to avoid paying their workers or forcing them into accepting smaller settlements. These “phoenix companies” go under and then quickly re-emerge from the ashes under a new name, helping them to avoid paying their debts.

Regulators and governments have been aware of the problem for some time. In 2012, the federal government established the Fair Entitlements Guarantee, which offers protection to employees of companies that go bankrupt. Up to 13 weeks of unpaid wages and leave entitlements are guaranteed in the event of a company going under – but only for Australian citizens and permanent residents.

Former ACCC chief Professor Alan Fels led the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce, which was set up in 2016 largely in response to systemic underpayment of foreign workers by 7-Eleven franchises and in the horticulture industry. It put out a report in March this year recommending that the guarantee be extended to cover migrant workers, or that an equivalent scheme be created to protect them.

“Wage underpayment may be inadvertent, but the outcome is no different as to when it is deliberate,” the taskforce’s report noted. “We have sufficient understanding to conclude that the problem of wage underpayment is widespread and has become more entrenched over time. The most comprehensive academic survey to date on the issue suggests as many as 50 per cent of temporary migrant workers may be being underpaid in their employment.”

The report went on to note that extending the guarantee to migrant workers would cost about $20 million, and that this cost could be even less if the government got serious about cracking down on phoenix companies. The government agreed “in principle” to accept the taskforce’s recommendations, but is yet to act.

To put the $20 million cost into context, that’s a little over twice the amount that George Calombaris alone underpaid workers at his restaurant empire. It’s a mere fraction of what the government has spent on the robodebt scheme – some $400 million. It’s less than the annual salary of some of the country’s highest paid chief executives.

It should also be put into the context of one of the defining statements of modern Australian politics, John Howard’s 2001 dog whistle that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

Howard’s speech was a signal about how he intended for Australia to treat refugees, but it’s worth bearing the statement in mind at a time when migrant labour is becoming more prevalent in Australia and around the world. Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack gave the government’s position away last month when he stunned Pacific Island nations by saying that they would survive climate change “because many of their workers come here to pick our fruit”.

In light of the Morrison government’s sustained attacks on workers, this situation highlights that the government has allowed businesses to import cheap migrant labour, and has then not taken action when these workers have been systematically mistreated. That the government has not yet acted to close this loophole speaks volumes about its priorities in a climate where wages are already low and the industrial relations system is increasingly tilted in favour of business.

“The state of the relationship as it exists between Australia and China right now is terrible.”

Labor’s deputy leader Richard Marles again expresses concerns about Australia’s relationship with China.

“No one has damaged journalism and Australians’ ability to receive trusted, reliable information more than the big tech platforms.”

Executive chair of News Corp Australasia Michael Miller puts on an almighty set of blinkers to criticise tech companies for declining journalism standards (read: revenue).

Part one: The murder of Eurydice Dixon
One of the terrible facts about the day Jaymes Todd killed Eurydice Dixon is that for him it was almost all very ordinary. Sarah Krasnostein on the murder of Eurydice Dixon.

The amount that Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit backers stand to make in the stock market if Britain crashes out of the European Union, according to Byline Times.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has announced the first complete review of the retirement income system since the introduction of compulsory superannuation almost three decades ago.

The list

The Monthly invited a panel of eminent critics, curators and practitioners to nominate the artistic works that they most admired and enjoyed over the past year. Read on for their selection of the best of Australian arts and culture in 2019.

Unbelievable is a police procedural that doesn’t allow for the genre’s easy outs – the humanity of the rape survivors does not disappear into the plot’s wake, while the investigators are never merely defined by their work. The directors, led by filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right), quietly reveal power inequalities and institutional failings. While the detectives are pursuing one perpetrator, their inquiries bring them into contact with every strand of a culture that devalues women.”

“Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton may soon gain retrospective powers to banish people he believes are dual citizens who have failed to uphold the nation’s values – without needing to provide proof. Though aimed at those with terrorist links, the powers could be used against others who once served in a foreign fighting force, whether by choice or not – including refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.”

Elle Hardy

Elle Hardy is an Australian journalist based in the United States. She can be found at



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