As the 457 program rapidly grew over the period 2003-2007, concerns mounted over the exploitation of overseas workers and the undermining of local wages and conditions. Australian newspapers frequently splashed stories about unscrupulous sponsors abusing the 457 visa program and exploiting their visa holders. The vast majority of these cases involved trades’ level 457 visa holders with little or no English languages skills, and who often lacked the technical skills they claimed.
To focus sponsors on their responsibilities to their overseas workers, and to strengthen the integrity of the program, in September 2009 the Government brought in the Worker Protection Act 2008. The essential message the legislation embodies is this – sponsors must ensure that overseas workers have the same terms and conditions for the same job in the same workplace as Australian workers. There must be no exploitation and no excuses for underpaying overseas workers.
The legislation also provides decision makers here in the department with additional powers and options for taking action against sponsors found to be failing their obligations. Be assured that when sponsors inadvertently, recklessly or sometimes systematically abuse and/or exploit their visa holders and the program, we can and do take action.
How do we do this?
To assess whether our 18 500 active sponsors are satisfying their obligations, we monitor sponsors. Sometimes we commence monitoring on the basis of an allegation, and sometimes we may instigate a sector-based campaign, but generally, we adopt a risk based approach to initiating monitoring. We’ve got a dedicated network of officers around the country, including 27 inspectors who have enhanced monitoring powers – this means that they can require documents from sponsors, and if those documents are not supplied, we can initiate civil action against the sponsor. Our officers talk to sponsors, gather information, and analyse the information to assess whether a sponsor is meeting their obligations.
During the monitoring process, we also work collaboratively with other agencies. For example, if we uncover issues that fall within the responsibility of the Fair Work Ombudsman, we refer specific matters for their attention. Similarly we refer matters to work place safety agencies, and the Australian Tax Office as required.
If through monitoring, a sponsor is found to be failing their obligations, a decision maker can bar or cancel a sponsor from the program, infringe the sponsor and/or take legal action against the sponsor.
How many sponsors have you sanctioned?
In 2010-2011, the department sanctioned 137 sponsors, and warned 453 sponsors. The majority of these sanctions have been applied as a result of sponsors failing to provide equivalent terms and conditions of employment as they would to an Australian or permanent resident employee. Additionally, in the last 18 months, we have issued 12 infringements to 12 sponsors, and are considering civil action against a few sponsors at the moment for serious failures of their sponsorship obligations. Watch this space!
What are the department’s future plans in the area of monitoring?
We intend to sharpen our focus on campaign based monitoring in the coming months, commencing work in particular industry sectors. We will also be looking at sponsors other than 457 sponsors, to assess whether those sponsors are satisfying their sponsorship obligations.