Foreign skilled workers in Australia have been paid as little as $40 a day meaning they were only able to afford to eat plain white rice for three meals a day, an inquiry has heard.
A Senate committee is examining new laws to protect migrant workers from exploitation.
The Electrical Trades Union told the inquiry on Wednesday two Filipino and two Thai workers were engaged on a solar farm construction project outside of the north Queensland city of Townsville in 2018.
It was discovered the workers were being paid $40 a day, plus a $42 allowance for food and accommodation, and employed under subclass 400 “short-stay specialist” visa arrangements.
Union members passed the hat around to raise money for the workers.
It emerged the “highly specialised” work they were hired to do included licenced electrical work but their skills and qualifications were never assessed and they were not licenced to perform it.
The employer, through lawyers, said it had done nothing illegal and was under no obligation to pay, but settled the matter by increasing the wages and making back-payments.
The union told the inquiry despite examples such as this, the laws proposed by the Morrison government contained “zero provisions to prevent a recurrence of these events and no powers to take action against an employer should it occur again”.
“Now is an opportunity to get the settings right instead of returning to business as usual or worse,” the union told the inquiry.
“The government should at the very least fast track the implementation of the 22 recommendations of the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce report which were handed down over two years ago.
“The current treatment of visa workers is a national embarrassment.”
The bill, introduced to parliament in November, establishes new criminal offences and civil penalties for “coercing or exerting undue influence or pressure on a non-citizen to accept or agree to certain work arrangements”.
It also sets up a power to ban, for a specified period of time, employers who are subject to a sanction from allowing additional non-citizens to begin work.
And Australian Border Force will get regulatory powers in relation to compliance notices and enforceable undertakings for work-related breaches.
The government believes it will strengthen protections for migrant workers and ensure law-abiding employers are not undercut by unscrupulous competitors.