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(Image: Unsplash/Yolanda Sun)

The abuse of Australia’s onshore humanitarian visa application system by employers poses a growing threat to the wages and employment prospects of Australians, as well as having national security implications — and it’s getting worse on the watch of a government that claims to be tough on border control.

With onshore humanitarian visa appeals cases in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal at nearly 60,000, and with 10,000 new cases a year, onshore bridging visas now represent a substantial addition to Australia’s already large pool of temporary labor.

While some think tanks cheer temporary migration, it’s become clear that foreign students and working holidaymakers — who together form the majority of the more than 900,000 temporary workers in Australia currently — are the victims of widespread and often industrial-scale exploitation.

The FWO noted in its annual report for 2017-18:

Migrant workers and visa holders continue to be one of the most vulnerable worker cohorts, and are continually over-represented in disputes as well as our compliance and enforcement outcomes.

The report of the government’s Migrant Workers Taskforce, released earlier this year, noted temporary migrants were “particularly vulnerable to unscrupulous practices at work” and that “[t]he underpayment of temporary migrant workers has become more visible in recent years as the number of temporary visa holders in Australia has grown substantially over that time.”

It’s now clear the exploitation of temporary migrants goes beyond foreign student and working holidaymaker visa holders and includes a new industry of temporary workers gaming the onshore humanitarian visa application system to work in Australia.

For these workers and the employers who exploit them, exploitation isn’t an opportunistic feature of life in Australia, it’s the entire purpose of their arrival in the country. And the numbers — there are around 180,000 bridging visa holders — are large enough to make a significant impact on the wages growth and employment prospects of Australian workers and other temporary workers.

The horticulture industry is ground zero for this exploitation: along with hospitality, it is the industry that features most regularly in the FWO’s investigations of under-payment. In 2013, the FWO launched a five-year “Harvest Trail” campaign around exploitation in the horticulture industry, which found that 41% of employers investigated had underpaid workers. The industry continues to feature regularly in FWO findings of wage underpayment and earlier this month, the FWO announced 40 horticulture companies in Queensland were under investigation for breaches of workplace laws.

The massive extent and persistence of exploitation in the horticulture industry indicates how lucrative cheap labour is — and why organisers willing to act as middle men have established a new industry of funnelling temporary workers here under the pretence of claiming humanitarian visas.

With up to two-fifths of the industry prepared to underpay workers, the 60% of farmers, agri-companies and labour hire companies who want to pay their workers in accordance with the requisite awards face ferocious, unfair competition — and Australian and legitimate temporary workers face being priced out of a labour market, adding further to the persistent wage stagnation that has characterised the last six years across the economy.

What’s also startling about the surge in illicit migrants gaming the onshore visa system is the lack of response from the government, which has relied heavily on — and wears as a badge of pride — its demonisation of asylum seekers who have sought to reach Australia by boat.

For a government willing to smear, detain, punish and exile maritime asylum seekers, its lack of interest is perverse. These are people who actually fulfil every one of the lies used by advocates of a punitive approach to maritime asylum seekers: in contrast to the latter, nearly all of whom are found to be genuine refugees, they have a rejection rate of up to 90%; they take up time and resources in the visa and legal systems ahead of legitimate claimants — they are literal “queue jumpers”; there is no character or security assessment of them as they normally enter on holiday visas, meaning they pose a potential criminal and security threat to Australia. And they take jobs that Australians or legitimate migrants would otherwise have access to.

Nor is the government unaware of how it has failed to control to prevent abuse of visas. In December 2015, the Australian National Audit Office issued a damning report about the then-Immigration Department that found:

There are weaknesses in almost all aspects of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s arrangements for managing visa holders’ compliance with their visa conditions … These weaknesses undermine the department’s capacity to effectively manage the risk of visa holders not complying with their visa conditions — from simple overstaying through illegal working to committing serious crimes.

Perhaps the close links of the agricultural sector with the Coalition via the National Party, and the benefits of cheap labour, explains the lack of action from the government on the systematic gaming of our visa system.

But as the Coalition itself has long argued, tight border controls are needed if the community is going to support high legitimate migration. And the government has lost control of our borders, with real consequences for both those exploited and all workers in Australia.

For more on this topic, read INQ’s latest investigation: The Visa Game

How should the government reframe its border control priorities? Send your comments to [email protected]. Please include your full name.