In the sleepy first weeks of January, policymakers in Canberra have been furiously working on the most significant review of Australia's migration system in decades.
Submissions to the review have flowed in from powerful industry bodies and think tanks that faithfully guide government decision-making.
They all sound largely the same tone: the migration system must be reformed to attract the best and brightest, to enhance Australia's sovereign capabilities and to deliver a strong and sustainable workforce.
From reading them, it would be easy to think that these submissions concerned dry matters of fiscal policy, not the future of nearly 2 million people already in Australia on temporary visas, and millions more to come.
But governments can no longer afford to view migration as an extension of economic policy. Decades of planning on that basis have led to the current impasse: where the number of temporary visa holders outstrips the number of permanent visa places more than tenfold, and everywhere we look, systematic wage theft and exploitation of migrant workers is rife.
Research conducted by the Migrant Justice Institute in 2018 found that of the 4332 migrant workers surveyed, around three-quarters were paid less than the casual minimum wage, and yet only 9 per cent of underpaid migrants had taken action to recover their wages.
These figures cannot be explained away by visa holders' lack of understanding or workplace literacy. Nor can they be chalked up to bad-apple employers or fraudsters preying on the unsuspecting.
Rather, they are a product of the insecurity and inequality that has been built into the migration regime over years.
Since 1996, when the Howard government introduced the temporary employer-sponsored sub-class 457 visa, two key trends have come to dominate immigration policy.
The first is the endless proliferation of temporary visas with no direct pathways to permanent residency. As the Human Rights Law Centre and Migrant Workers Centre pointed out in joint submissions to the review, it is increasingly common for people to spend more than 10 years on temporary visas searching for an opportunity to permanently migrate.
With each passing year, Australia increasingly becomes their home. As Krishna Kumar, a nurse and Bridging visa holder, told SBS news earlier this week, "it is impractical for a person who has been living in a country for over 14 years to move back home or to another country and restart his life."
The second trend is the dependence of permanent pathways upon decisions made by employers.
Temporary migrants must rely on the goodwill of their employers at various points in the immigration maze: to obtain certification of their skills, to accrue the points necessary in the cut-throat process of skilled migration, or to sponsor them for a limited range of employment-based visas.
The reliance of migrant workers on their employers for immigration outcomes robs them of bargaining power at work.
It becomes unthinkable to refuse extra hours or cashback requests, demand fair pay or decent conditions at work if losing your job means losing your visa and a future in Australia.
The migration system offers no protection to temporary migrants, extending them a standing invitation to "go home" if things get tough. It is time Australia confronts and addresses the systemic exploitation of migrant workers. This requires a fundamental shift that puts the rights of migrants at the heart of the migration system.
Quick fixes such as harsher penalties for employer misconduct appear attractive but will not work - however harsh the penalty might be, a worker is discouraged from cooperating with investigators if doing so would endanger their visa. Neither will limiting temporary migration to only high-wage earners automatically fix the problem of exploitation - exploitation of sponsored workers persists even in higher paid industries like information technology, in which sponsored workers may still be forced to pay the difference between their actual wage and the higher salary threshold by way of an illegal cashback. These changes will have no impact on systemic exploitation of the hundreds of thousands of international students and backpackers who are now rapidly returning to Australia.
Instead, what is needed is strong protections for visa holders who take action against abusive bosses - including a protection against visa cancellation and a visa that allows migrants to remain in Australia to pursue a claim. Next, the regime of employer sponsorship, which places employers in a position of control over migrant workers, must be overhauled. And finally, there must be open and accessible pathways to permanent residency, so that temporary migrants are no longer compelled to toil for years under exploitative and uncertain conditions.
The government's migration review must tackle the endemic exploitation of migrant workers in Australia - both because it is intrinsically linked to current migration settings and because we owe this to these integral members of the Australian community.
- Sanmati Verma is a managing lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre; Associate Professor Bassina Farbenblum (UNSW Faculty of Law and Justice) and Associate Professor Laurie Berg (UTS Law) are co-executive directors of the Migrant Justice Institute; Matt Kunkel is chief executive officer of Migrant Workers Centre.