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Several inquiries across the country are looking into the exploitation of foreign workers. Dan Peled/AAP Image/AAP

Inquiries into migrant worker rights show same old problems – but we already have solutions

A Senate inquiry into exploitation and underpayment of foreign workers at 7-Eleven stores began in Melbourne today. The inquiry is likely to raise questions about the health and safety impacts of workplace practices that target vulnerable workers for profit.

We know that while migrant workers are being underpaid, there’s a lot more at stake here than their pay cheques. Studies show financial insecurity has a strong impact on migrant worker health. There’s also an established relationship between poor working conditions and chronic health issues.

A recurring problem

7-Eleven isn’t the only company guilty of bad employment practices. Both the South Australian and Victorian governments are holding parliamentary inquiries in response to reports about widespread worker exploitation in the fresh food industries. And Australia Post recently fired one of its contractors for similar tactics.

This isn’t a new problem.

The world’s largest blue asbestos mine, which operated in Wittenoom, Western Australia, in the 1960s, had a workforce of both Australian and migrant workers. Studies show Wittenoom’s Italian-born workers were placed in the least desirable jobs and exposed to asbestos fibre levels twice as high as their local counterparts experienced. They had a 16 times greater risk of developing mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer affecting the lungs.

And a recent study comparing the workplace hazard exposure of ethnic and Australian-born workers across a range of occupations and industries found the former were more likely to be exposed to occupational hazards.

We don’t know the full extent of the problem. Workplace health and safety regulators focus prevention activities on known risks, identified through workers’ compensation claims data. But this underestimates the total burden of work-related injury, as many workers are ineligible to make claims, or don’t lodge them.

Other datasets reveal a different picture. In the 2013-14 financial year, for instance, 531,800 Australia workers experienced a work-related injury or illness but only 34% received workers’ compensation. Nearly 20% of those who didn’t claim compensation were either unaware of workers’ compensation or felt that making a claim would have a negative impact on their relationship with their employer.

Italian-born workers at the Wittenoom mine in the 1960s were exposed to twice the level of asbestos that those born in Australia experienced. Philip Schubert/Flickr, CC BY

While we don’t know how many of these employees were migrants, we do know that migrant workers in Australia have a limited understanding of occupational health and safety systems. That puts them at greater risk of workplace injury.

These workers find themselves at the nexus of a complex system encompassing immigration, employment, and health and safety policy. At best, this complexity creates an environment that results in some workers falling through the cracks. At worst, it enables some employers to exploit the gaps.

Complex system

Migrant workers and international students, who also work part-time, need employers to provide references to maintain their visa status. Some rogue employers take advantage of this. News reports claim 7-Eleven franchisees coerced staff into working longer hours than their visa requirements allow. They then threatened to report them to immigration authorities if they complained of their conditions.

But migrants aren’t the only ones vulnerable at work; other groups at increased risk of work injury and illness include young and inexperienced workers, older workers and those who struggle with English literacy.

A recently developed survey identifies four conditions that affect workers’ risk of work injury:

  • exposure to hazards
  • workplace policies and procedures to protect workers
  • occupational health and safety awareness
  • empowerment and participation of workers in injury prevention.

Clearly, vulnerability is not exclusive to age, nationality, culture or language, but the interplay between employer and employee factors renders some workers more vulnerable than others.

We have evidence-based national protocols in place to help employers identify and minimise risks to health and safety. The protocols define an approach to injury control that begins, where possible, with the elimination of a hazard, progresses to substitution or isolation of the hazard, and finally to reducing worker exposure to the hazard.

These protocols are as relevant to employers of migrant workers as they are to employers of Australian-born workers. But migrants’ lack of knowledge of their rights and the potential for visa-related blackmail expose them to different risks including employer exploitation.

The national and state inquiries are unlikely to discover anything new. But the findings may provide a catalyst to implement solutions that have already been identified. Governments can improve migrant education about their rights at work, establish better occupational injury surveillance systems, and remove policy “gaps” that some employers exploit at a cost to worker health.

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