The NSW government will back a new statewide legal service that will target underpaid migrant workers as the federal government is urged to relax strict visa laws while it considers tougher penalties for the underpayment of wages.
NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman will launch the free legal service for migrants and temporary visa holders on Wednesday. The government will provide the service with $1.6 million over three years to help almost 1000 workers each year.
“Every employee in Australia should be paid what they’re owed and this project will go a long way towards holding to account employers who exploit their workers,” Mr Speakman said.
“For migrants and temporary visa holders, MELS [the Migrant Employment Legal Service] offers free legal advice, representation and community legal education if you’ve been ripped off by your employer or unfairly dismissed”.
The move comes as the federal government assesses the effectiveness of employment laws and considers tougher penalties against wage theft and Woolworths addresses up to $300 million in underpayments of staff.
The Redfern Legal Centre, which is among four community legal centres that will deliver the new migrant legal service, has also made a submission to the Morrison government inquiry into proposed new penalties for wage theft. The submission supports the introduction of tougher penalties, but calls on the government to address some of the underlying reasons for the exploitation of migrants. These include the risk of migrant visa cancellation if workers enforce their legal rights to address underpayment.
Redfern Legal Centre’s employment law solicitor Sharmilla Bargon said her centre has seen visa holders forced to work more hours than the legal limit of 40 hours per fortnight.
“If the migrant worker complains, the employer threatens to ‘get them deported’. This creates a culture of silence around wage theft and other forms of exploitation,” she said.
Kateryna Shulha, 22, who arrived in Sydney from Ukraine four years ago, is among the student visa holders who have been underpaid.
She initially had no idea that the $12 per hour she was paid in one waitressing job and the $14 per hour at another was well below the legal minimum. When she asked for pay slips, none were provided.
This year she went to the Redfern Legal Centre where she was told she should have been paid more than $22 per hour in both jobs and she should have received pay slips. Had she received the advice at the time she was underpaid, she would have pursued a legal claim.
She has decided she does not want to invest the time and money she would need to now to proceed with the claim because she is not able to identify her employers or document the hours she worked.
“Unfortunately, I had to reconsider,” she said. “I tried to pursue both my employers, but there was no response and I don’t think I can invest my time and resources right now.”
Ms Shulha, who is studying law at the University of Sydney, is now volunteering for the Migrant Employment Legal Service. The service will pool the resources of the Redfern Legal Service, the Inner City Legal Centre, Kingsford Legal Centre and Marrickville Legal Centre.
Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter said the review on the penalty framework was “not the total sum of work” the government was doing to address the broader issues of workplace exploitation.
“Migrant workers should not be subject to threats regarding their visas from unscrupulous employers.
“The government is committed to apply and ensure the effective operation and promotion of the protocol between the FWO [Fair Work Ombudsman] and DHA [Department of Home Affairs] that assists migrant workers to come forward to report concerns about workplace exploitation or underpayment