FWO specialist team flies in to gather intelligence on 417 visa-holder wages & conditions

13 April 2015

Members of the Fair Work Ombudsman’s specialist Overseas Workers’ Team will spend this week in the Northern Rivers, Tweed Coast, Sunshine Coast and Wide Bay regions of NSW and Queensland as part of an Inquiry into the wages and conditions of overseas workers in Australia on the 417 working holiday visa.

Fair Work inspectors will engage with key stakeholders in Byron Bay, Lismore, Gympie and Maroochydore as part of a year-long Inquiry into allegations that some unscrupulous employers are exploiting backpackers on working holidays. 

The 417 is a temporary visa issued by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) to young people who want to holiday and work in Australia for up to two years.

To be eligible to apply for a second year, 417 visa-holders must undertake 88 days’ specified work in a designated regional area in certain industries in their first year.

The fact-finding mission by Overseas Workers’ Team Director Carey Trundle and members of her team follows similar community engagement late last year in Cairns, Darwin and Alice Springs. 

Ms Trundle says the deliberate exploitation of young, vulnerable backpackers who are seeking to extend their visa an additional 12 months – many of them from non-English speaking backgrounds with little understanding of their workplace rights – is totally unacceptable.

There were 183,428 working holiday visas granted by the DIBP in Australia last financial year and 45,950 second-year visas. This was an 18.2 percent increase on the previous financial year and equated to around one in four working holiday visa-holders being granted a 12-month extension.

Ms Trundle says that in the first nine months of this financial year, the Fair Work Ombudsman has recouped a total of $385,567 for 138 underpaid 417 visa-holders who approached the Agency for assistance.

This is up on $345,000 recovered for 309 underpaid 417 visa-holders last financial year, $262,000 returned to 201 underpaid 417 visa-holders in 2012-13 and $67,000 reimbursed to 77 underpaid 417 visa-holders in 2011-12.

The 417 working holiday visa is available to 18 to 30-year-olds from 19 countries who wish to holiday and work in Australia.

The top five countries now using this program are Taiwan, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Ireland and Italy.

Ms Trundle says 417 visa-holders have emerged as a strong priority for the Fair Work Ombudsman.

The Fair Work Ombudsman is particularly interested in allegations that the ‘88-day requirement’ for work in a designated regional area is being abused by some unscrupulous operators.

The allegations include underpayment, non-payment, employees paying employers and third parties for the granting of the second visa and the exploitation of workers in exchange for accommodation programs.

The Fair Work Ombudsman’s Overseas Workers’ Team (OWT) is now conducting community engagement sessions in regional areas where large numbers of backpackers work and have their documentation signed off so they can satisfy the ’88 day rule’.

A key aim of the Inquiry is to assess the impact of the ’88 day rule’ on compliance rates and how the Fair Work Ombudsman can ensure a level playing field for all employers

The Fair Work Ombudsman is now receiving more requests for assistance from visa-holders working in Australia than ever before.

“One in 10 of our requests for assistance are now coming from visa-holders. That’s significant and that is a trend that is concerning us greatly,” Ms Trundle says. 

“We are very keen to work with employers and communities to make sure that those who try to get a competitive edge by ripping off vulnerable workers are brought to account.”

Last financial year, the Fair Work Ombudsman recovered $1.103 million in underpaid wages and entitlements for almost 700 workers who identified as visa-holders.

In the first nine months of this financial year, the Agency has already recouped $1.281 million for 345 underpaid visa-holders.

Visa-holders who contact the Fair Work Ombudsman seeking assistance are in the main 60 per cent male and 40 per cent female.

More than a third are aged between 26 and 30 and most were born in Korea, China, Germany, France or India.

Almost a quarter of all requests for assistance from visa-holders come from employees in the accommodation and food services sector, followed by agriculture, forestry and fishing.

The Fair Work Ombudsman is active in industries known to employ significant numbers of overseas workers – including hospitality, horticulture, cleaning, convenience stores and trolley collecting.

The Agency believes overseas workers contribute to the labour market by providing specialised skills, knowledge and innovation – and a more flexible labour supply, particularly in industries where employers have difficulty attracting domestic workers.

“We are keen to ensure that all those who work in Australia are treated with dignity and respect and accorded the same rights as local workers. Indeed, that is the law,” Ms Trundle says.

“We want the work experience of an overseas worker in Australia to be a positive one. And we simply aim to ensure that those who go to work each day are paid fairly for their labour.

“As a regulator, we have a role to monitor and enforce workplace laws, but a large part of our focus is educating the community about workplace rights and obligations.”

The Fair Work Ombudsman is currently running a number of education and compliance activities aimed at protecting the rights of overseas and seasonal workers and ensuring employers, hostel owners and labour-hire operators understand and comply with workplace laws.  

A three-year Harvest Trail inquiry by the Agency’s Regional Services Team is also reviewing compliance within the fruit and vegetable growing industry across Australia.

Late last year, the Fair Work Ombudsman received fresh requests for assistance from backpackers being lured to regional centres by dodgy labour-hire operators allegedly treating them poorly, bullying and sexually harassing them and ripping them off to the tune of hundreds of dollars.

The Agency’s Overseas Workers’ Team was established in July, 2012 in recognition that overseas workers can be vulnerable to exploitation or require specialist assistance.

It provides assistance to:

  • Workers in Australia on temporary visas who have work rights,
  • Newly-arrived migrants who may not be aware of Australia’s employment and workplace laws, and
  • Newly-arrived migrants who, through their visa conditions, have committed to remain with their sponsoring employer for a period of time.

“We are constantly looking at new and innovative ways to educate overseas workers about their workplace rights, particularly minimum pay rates,” Ms Trundle says.

“We actively encourage overseas workers who have concerns that their workplace rights are being compromised to contact us.

“We want people to call our Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94 – or if they need the assistance of an interpreter, 13 14 50.

“Our website has materials translated into 27 different languages and I would likewise encourage people to go to www.fairwork.gov.au for information and advice.

“The best defence for an overseas worker against being underpaid or treated unfairly is to know their rights. They have the same workplace rights as any other worker in Australia.”

The Fair Work Ombudsman has fact sheets tailored to overseas workers and international students on its website.

“The Agency has also produced videos in 14 different languages and posted them on YouTube. They are there for you, and I encourage you to use them,” Ms Trundle says.

The largest penalty awarded by the Courts in a legal matter initiated by the Fair Work Ombudsman is $343,860 for a case involving cleaners - overseas workers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Ireland.

Attention News Editors

Ms Trundle will be available for radio, television and newspaper interviews this week in the regions being visited.

To arrange an interview and/or photograph, please contact Tom McPherson, who is travelling with the Overseas Workers’ Team, on 0439 835 855, tom.mcpherson@fwo.gov.au

For media who request it, an addendum page on Tips for Backpackers can be provided separately.

Follow Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James on Twitter @NatJamesFWO external-icon.png, the Fair Work Ombudsman @fairwork_gov_au External link icon or find us on Facebook www.facebook.com/fairwork.gov.au External link icon.

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