A coalition of more than 40 legal service providers, unions, ethnic community peak bodies, churches and national organisations is calling on Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil to urgently bring widespread migrant worker exploitation out of the shadows.  

Led by the Migrant Justice Institute and Human Rights Law Centre, the Breaking the Silence proposal – co-authored by a UNSW Sydney academic – urges the Federal government to establish whistleblower protections that would enable migrant workers to report exploitation without risking their visa.

The Albanese Government’s wholesale review of Australia’s migration system will report in April, as the Government is devising strategies for faster and greater migrant intake. 

With hundreds of thousands of international students, skilled workers and backpackers arriving or returning to the country, there is a historic opportunity and urgent need to implement these reforms within the next six months.

Additionally, from 1 July, the Government will reinstate limits on international student work hours, putting tens of thousands of underpaid students at risk of visa cancellation if they speak up for working extra hours in order to earn the equivalent of minimum wage.

The Migrant Justice Institute has surveyed more than 15,000 migrant workers over the past five years. These studies consistently found that around three-quarters of migrant workers earned below the casual minimum wage in Australia, and a quarter earned less than half that. Nine in 10 underpaid workers suffered in silence and took no action. 

Migrant workers generally endure exploitation in silence for fear of jeopardising their visa or ability to stay in Australia. The proposed reforms in Breaking the Silence include:

  • protection against visa cancellation for exploited migrant workers who take action against their employer and have breached their work conditions
  • short-term visa to allow exploited migrant workers to remain in Australia and pursue a claim against their employers, with visa security and the ability to work. 

Associate Professor Bassina Farbenblum, UNSW Faculty of Law & Justice, and Co-Executive Director of Migrant Justice Institute says enabling exploited migrant workers to speak up is sensible government policy.

“It is immoral for the government to draw migrants and international students back to Australia knowing full well that it hasn’t fixed the problems that will lead to many of them being exploited and unable to speak up,” she says.

“After a decade of government inaction, these reforms will finally make a dent on migrant exploitation without creating red tape for businesses doing the right thing.”

Associate Professor Laurie Berg, UTS, and Co-Executive Director of Migrant Justice Institute says the protections are a way of keeping employers accountable.

“Without the whistleblower protections we’re proposing, employers know they won’t get caught underpaying migrant workers and exploitation will remain business as usual.

“Harsh penalties for unscrupulous employers are useless if migrant workers are too fearful to report them.” 

One of the problems with our current visa system, says Managing Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, Sanmati Verma, is that the conditions for exploitation are built into it.

“If migrant workers can’t speak up without fear of losing their place in Australia, most will never come forward. When they leave Australia, new migrant workers will simply replace them in those exploitative jobs.           

“These whistleblower protections must be a cornerstone of the government’s migration reforms.”


The national coalition includes: 

  • ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans) 
  • AMES Australia 
  • Anti-Slavery Australia 
  • Australian Catholic Anti-Slavery Network 
  • Australian Human Rights Institute 
  • AWU Australian Workers Union 
  • Be Slavery Free 
  • Circle Green Community Legal 
  • Cleaning Accountability Framework 
  • Dr James Cockayne, NSW Anti-Slavery Commissioner 
  • Eastern Community Legal 
  • ECCV 
  • FECCA 
  • Human Rights Law Centre
  • Immigration Advice and Rights Centre 
  • Inner City Legal Centre 
  • Justice Connect 
  • Marrickville Legal Centre 
  • Migrant Justice Institute
  • Migrant Workers Centre 
  • Migration Institute of Australia 
  • Redfern Legal Centre 
  • The Retail Supply Chain Alliance: AWU, TWU, SDA 
  • RMIT Business and Human Rights Centre 
  • Salvation Army 
  • SCALES Community Legal Centre 
  • SDA Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association
  • Settlement Council of Australia 
  • South East Monash Legal Centre 
  • The Fair Hiring Initiative 
  • TWU Transport Workers Union 
  • Unions NSW 
  • United Workers Union 
  • Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania 
  • University of Melbourne Student Union Legal Service 
  • Verite South East Asia - Australia 
  • Victorian Trades Hall Council 
  • WEstjustice 
  • Working Women’s Centre