FWO issues findings of inquiry on backpacker workers

Findings of the inquiry reveal 38% of backpacker workers were positive about their regional work experiences and a majority said they would recommend the 417 visa to others, though fewer would recommend the second year.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has released its report into the experiences of 417 working holiday visa-holders in Australia.

After an extensive two-year national Inquiry consulting a diverse range of stakeholders and regional visits, the Fair Work Ombudsman’s report contains new insights into the experiences of backpackers when they work in Australia.

The 417 visa is a temporary visa issued by the Department of Immigration & Border Protection (DIBP) to young people who want to spend holidays and work in Australia.

To be eligible to stay in Australia for a second year on a 417 visa, a visa-holder is required to undertake 88 days of specified paid work in their first year in a designated regional area and in certain industries, such as agriculture, fishing and meat-and-poultry production.

The Inquiry was established in August 2014 in response to escalating complaints from working holiday makers to the Fair Work Ombudsman and concerns that the 88-day requirement, which at the time need not have been paid work, was being exploited by some employers.

The inquiry sits alongside the Fair Work Ombudsman’s Harvest Trail Inquiry focused on the horticulture sector, which commenced in August 2013 and is due to report in 2017.

The Inquiry into the experiences of 417 visa-holders emphasises the importance of backpacker labour to regional Australia. But it also identifies opportunities to strengthen education and compliance frameworks and efforts to ensure that this vital labour source is not exploited.

A key part of the Inquiry was a survey of more than 4000 overseas workers who had been granted a second-year 417 visa after working in regional Australia.

Some 38% of respondents were positive about their regional work experiences and a majority said they would recommend the 417 visa to others, though fewer would recommend the second year.

However, the survey and other Inquiry work also indicated serious concerns about the working conditions for backpackers, particularly while undertaking their 88 days of specified paid work.

A significant majority of recipients (66%) felt that employers take advantage of people on working holiday visas by underpaying them. Most (59%) also agreed that backpackers are unlikely to complain about their working conditions in case their work is not signed off by the employer.

These fears are reinforced by the experiences of some 417 visa-holders, with 35% of survey respondents stating they were paid less than the minimum wage, 14% revealing they had to pay in advance to get regional work and 6% had to pay an employer to “sign off” on their regional work requirement.

Deductions from pay were also common and often not agreed in writing as required by the law (only 21% of respondents say written agreement was provided).

Fair Work Ombudsman Ms Natalie James says the survey confirmed that overseas workers seeking regional work to satisfy the 88-day requirement and obtain a second-year 417 visa are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

James says the Working Holiday Maker program, designed to facilitate cultural exchange, is in some cases being treated by both visa holders and employers as a “ticket” to work in Australia.

“The backpacker labour-force is vital to some industries associated with food production in regional areas but we are at risk of it being a black-market, exploited labour-force if the settings remain the same,” James says.

The report recommends that academics and migration experts be enlisted to help research and solve labour-force issues associated with the need to balance cultural exchange, Australia’s international reputation, regional labour-supply needs and the vulnerability of 417 visa-holders.

Inside Small Business

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