KASAMA Vol. 22 No. 3 / July-August-September 2008 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

New laws to protect overseas workers?

24 SEPTEMBER 2008 — Australian Senator Chris Evans, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, today introduced a Bill in the Senate that sets out a new framework “to better protect temporary overseas workers in Australia”.

457 Spotlight Logo In his media release Sen. Evans said: “Over the last five years Australian employers have increasingly turned to the temporary skilled migration program to bring in the skilled workers they need. The resources boom, low levels of unemployment, and the failure of the previous government to invest in the education and training of our own people, have contributed to endemic skills shortages across the country. The temporary working visa scheme is only sustainable if the community is confident that overseas workers are not being exploited or used to undermine local wages and conditions.” [1]

Until the Senate commences discussion of the Bill, it is too early to comment on the proposals. However, we can and have commented upon some of the problematic conditions of employment faced by Filipinos working in Australia under temporary 457 visa contracts.

On August 8 this year, judgement was handed down against Sydney–based labour hire agency Healthcare Recruiting Australia Pty Ltd (HRA) and its sole director Michelle Lloyd, a Filipina, in a case concerning three 457 visa holders recruited from the Philippines for work as nursing assistants. [2] The Australian Workplace Ombudsman described the company’s treatment of these workers as being “nothing short of shabby”.

“There were times when these vulnerable workers did not have enough money to put food on the table,” Workplace Ombudsman Executive Director Michael Campbell revealed.

Mr Campbell criticised HRA’s unconscionable behaviour in deliberately underpaying the three migrant workers by more than $15,000. “When they asked about their wages, they were fobbed off with false promises and threats,” he said.

Lloyd and her company have been fined a total of $48,000 in the Federal Magistrate’s Court for four breaches of the Workplace Relations Act. Mr Campbell says the company withheld the workers’ entitlements for more than a year after workplace inspectors identified the underpayments. He says the company unlawfully deducted significant sums of money from their wages for training that was never provided, for rent, agency fees and airfares.

“The workers have told how there were times when they were living on the charity of others and felt ashamed they could not pay their rent,” he said. “They were upset and frustrated and their treatment was obviously a very difficult time both financially and emotionally.”

HRA placed the three workers at two Sydney nursing/aged care facilities in 2005 and 2006 where they provided residents with personal care and assisted them with showering, dressing and eating. However, Mr Campbell says HRA failed to pay full wages, casual loadings, penalty rates and holiday pay and made unlawful deductions without the workers’ consent.

He described the case as very serious and said the court penalty should serve as a warning to other recruitment companies bringing in migrant workers.

The Workplace Ombudsman has investigated more than 400 matters relating to 457 visa–holders over the past two years, recovering more than $1.3 million in underpayments for overseas workers.

All people working in Australia, including workers from overseas, are entitled to basic rights and protection in the workplace. This includes backpackers, seasonal workers, international students, temporary visa holders, long–term visa holders, permanent migrants and others.

Commonwealth workplace relations laws apply equally to both overseas workers and locally employed workers. Employers engaging workers from overseas must ensure that they comply with both Commonwealth immigration and workplace relations laws.

Commonwealth immigration laws, including the payment of the minimum salary level for Subclass 457 visa holders are enforced by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Whereas, Commonwealth workplace relations laws, including the payment of minimum rates of pay under awards and workplace agreements are enforced by the Workplace Ombudsman.

More than 459,000 international students were enrolled in Australia at the end of July, and the Workplace Ombudsman is concerned the vast majority would have little or no understanding of their workplace rights and the laws which protect them. “This makes them vulnerable to exploitation and unwittingly accepting poor employment conditions so they can pocket a few dollars,” he said. Overseas students who want to find out about their workplace rights can call the Help Line on 1300 724 200 or chat live online with an adviser on the website at

Background information for this article was sourced from the Australian Government Workplace Ombudsman’s website at where you can find fact sheets on workplace rights and rules pertaining to overseas workers in Australia.


[2] The transcript of the Aug. 8 Federal Magistrates Court of Australia Decision in Armstrong v Healthcare Recruiting Australia Pty Ltd & Anor (No.2) [2008] FMCA 1050 is available for download at