Illegal migrant workers are not a big problem in Australia. Those who are caught are usually working outside of the allowances of their tourist or student visas. Being an island nation and the bottom of the world, Australia does not have border protection issues to the extent of the United States or Europe.
That’s an odd way to begin an article, particularly one of occupational health and safety but there is a relevance.
The issue of migrant workers came up following a media statement from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship on 14 December 2009.
“…..10 people [working]on a farm at Carcuma, near Coonalpyn in the South Australian Mallee region [were detained]….
[the group contained] eight Thai and two Lao nationals who are now expected to be removed from Australia. …
Six of those located were unlawful non-citizens, two were student visa holders and two held tourist visas. …..
All are suspected of working illegally on the farm and investigations will now be conducted into their employment.”
Often illegal workers are exploited and accommodated in harsh living conditions, particularly in countries where the trafficking of migrant workers also occurs.
During harvest time in Australia, farmers often struggle to obtain a sufficient workforce and accommodation of sorts is often provided.
A spokesperson for DIAC told SafetyAtWorkBlog that in this particular raid no other administrative agencies were involved although when the issue under investigation concerns matters other than immigration, a joint investigation is conducted.
If any breaches of other laws are observed the relevant agencies are informed. In this instance the workers were housed on the farm and there seemed no need to raise any issues with any other agency.
The spokesperson would no provide any further information such as the type of farm, whether the workers were provided through a labour-hire firm or whether any action was to be taken against the farmer for employing illegal workers.
As Australia moves to harmonisation of its OHS laws AND harmonisation of its OHS enforcement policies, it may be useful for the Government to begin to review its immigration enforcement policies so that safety aspects are also included as a regular inspection criteria.
In Victoria it is common for the OHS inspectors to accompany raids on illegal brothels and construction sites, for instance, where illegal migrant workers are suspected.
In the early 1990s Worksafe Victoria coordinated raids throughout the Melbourne suburbs over dangerous goods. The Hazardous Chemicals Audit Team included officials of the water authority, fire services, port authority, local council, OHS regulator and other relevant bodies. Premises where notified 24 hours before an audit was conducted. The premises were identified by a number of measures. The Victorian Audit-General mentioned HCAT in 1998 in relation to one concentrated area of chemical storage:
11.13 Since 1991, the operations at Coode Island have been the subject of considerable inspection activity. Joint-agency inspections conducted by the Hazardous Chemicals Audit Team soon after the fire identified 400 matters requiring attention, including a number of issues raised by the Metropolitan Fire Brigades Board. A follow-up of those inspections by the Occupational Health and Safety Authority in February 1992 disclosed that the majority of issues had been addressed. Audit was advised that the Authority has since completed further inspections of the site and has provided a range of technical advice to site operators.
Some companies felt this approach was heavy-handed but others found that an inspection focussing on one are of business operation allowed for a more coordinated approach. There may have still been too much red tape at that time because any penalties were handled by the individual agencies.
The current Government’s attack on business red tape in a climate of harmonisation may make this coordinated audit approach more practical. Either inspectors should be trained in the enforcement of a range of laws or, without considering cost and jurisdiction, a team of specialist inspectors should be used.
[Kevin Jones provided administrative support to HCAT but never participated in an audit]