10 November 2020

I want to pay tribute to the many brave workers who, back in 2015—with the dedicated union officials at the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association and lawyers at Maurice Blackburn, who represented them—helped expose one of Australia’s biggest corporate scandals.

I’m speaking of the thousands of workers, many of them international students and temporary migrant workers, who worked in 7-Eleven franchises and were subject to some of the worst worker exploitation that we’ve seen in Australia.

These workers were subject to a systematic pattern of exploitation, driven primarily by a severe power imbalance in the relationship between the worker and the employer.

Recently, the Fair Work Ombudsman published a press release about 4,043 current and former employees who were back paid over $170 million. They were paid between $8 and $10 an hour, in most instances. As a former official of the SDA union myself, I met a number of these international students. One, in particular, made as little as $5 an hour.

These people came to Australia to get a great education and improve their future but were, instead, too scared to speak up and were not aware of their workplace rights.

Reporting at the time uncovered threats of violence, doctored time sheets, a cashback scheme designed to cover up wage theft and, in one awful case, an employer who’d installed security cameras in a staff bathroom. I can’t fathom the fear that these workers would have felt. They were studying, struggling to make ends meet and feeling powerless in the face of employers determined to rip them off in a foreign country—because their boss had all the power and they had none.

Earlier this month, SDA and Maurice Blackburn successfully recovered millions of dollars. From what I recall, I have recovered around $1.5 million on behalf of many workers in the Victorian branch of the SDA. This would not have been made possible without the courageous whistleblowers who, despite the threat of deportation and violence, came forward and reported the circumstances that they were dealing with in their workplaces.

Unfortunately, while these workers will receive their wages and superannuation, many temporary migrant workers continue to be vulnerable and exploited in Australia. This federal government is in its 8th year.

They’ve known about the depth and breadth of worker exploitation in Australia, yet they continue to drag their heels on reform. Thankfully, the Senate established a select committee, which I’m chairing, and we are looking into this issue. Despite the reports of sexual harassment of backpackers, of wage theft, of workers being forced to live in deplorable and cramped conditions and of dodgy labour hire firms there have been many recommendations—inquiry after inquiry, report after report, task force after task force—established by this government.

The Migrant Worker Taskforce recently found that as many as half of all temporary migrant workers in Australia are being underpaid. They have not resourced the Fair Work Ombudsman adequately, in my opinion, to prosecute the wrongdoers and conduct comprehensive compliance activities.

Not only is this a problem for workers in Australia; it is starting to affect our reputation overseas. Just this weekend, the ABC reported that the Vanuatu government has concerns about the exploitation of temporary workers, from its own country, here in Australia. Just as we are about to start opening our borders to pick fruit, at the peak of many harvests around the country, we really need to start thinking about our reputation abroad.

Workers should be able to trust that they will be safe and secure when they come to the workplace. They should be able to rely on a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Unfortunately, under this government these values are being eroded. Work has increasingly become insecure, wages growth has flattened and nothing is being done to effectively tackle wage theft and worker exploitation.