Securing a temporary working visa is seen as the beginning of a more prosperous life for overseas hospitality workers who are vulnerable to exploitation.
Securing a temporary working visa is seen as the beginning of a more prosperous life for overseas hospitality workers who are vulnerable to exploitation.

The workers most at risk of exploitation

"STARTING July with good news," said a Facebook page of a culinary training college in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, specialising in overseas placements exclaims in 2017.

A student had just secured a 457 visa with a four-year contract to work as a chef in Sydney.

A series of similar posts, accompanied by photos of smiling students wearing chef hats beside a copy of their Australian visa approval forms are scattered through the Facebook page.

But the outlook for some temporary skilled visa holders after arrival is not always so rosy, say employment law experts.

The workers are vulnerable to exploitation due to the temporary nature of their visas, dependence on their sponsoring employer and difficulty switching sponsors, a paper by University of Sydney academics Stephen Clibborn and Chris Wright says.

Their paper, A Guest Worker State, finds temporary work visa schemes can give migrants more opportunities than in their home countries, but have been found to contribute to migrant worker exploitation.

Temporary skilled visas, or 457 visas, have been in place since 1996 under the then-Howard Government. Before that, immigration policy focused almost exclusively on permanent settlement based on Government-set quotas, the report says.

But under the 457 visa, workers were sponsored by their employers, with intakes based on employer demand. By the early 2000s, reports had emerged of 457 visa holders being underpaid and mistreated, escalating in 2006 following the Howard Government's controversial Work Choices laws, it continues.

Intermediate skilled workers in industries with traditional low levels of union representation, such as hospitality, were worst hit.

Under the Rudd Labor Government, the Fair Work Ombudsman was given powers to crack down on employers abusing the system. The Government also extended the time given to visa holders to find a new sponsor from 28 days to 90 days.

But that was wound back under the Turnbull Coalition Government in 2016 to 60 days.

The 457 visa was replaced in 2018 by the 482 visa. It created a two-year short-term stream for intermediate-skilled jobs, such as a cafe manager, and a four-year medium and long term stream for high-skilled occupations, including chefs.

But it also reduced the ability for those in the short-term stream to apply for permanent residency after two years of work.

"Whereas the 457 visa gave all visa holders the opportunity to apply for permanent residency, under the 482 visa, this possibility is now available only to workers sponsored for occupations eligible under the medium and long-term stream," the paper says.

"Workers sponsored under the 'short-term' stream essentially have no opportunity to convert from temporary residency status, thus potentially diminishing their agency and bargaining power.

"Removing the pathway to permanent residency has transformed the short-term stream of the 482 visa into a guest-worker visa.

"The safeguards that existed when the 457 visa was first introduced in 1996 to ensure that migrant workers retained their agency and bargaining power have thus been whittled away by successive policy changes."

Former Mantle Group Hospitality Worker Adam Hardwick said he had just 90 days to find a new sponsor.

But approved business sponsors under the scheme are not publicly available, meaning workers must randomly phone around businesses to try or rely on word of mouth to find a new sponsor.