Australia 'at risk' of American-style illegal worker problem

UNDOCUMENTED immigrant workers need the same protections as Australian workers, if Australia is to avoid an American-style problem of mass exploitation of illegal workers.

That was the message from the University of Sydney Business School's Dr Stephen Clibborn, to the Abbott government's Productivity Commission review of workplace relations.

Dr Clibborn's submission has warned that Australia faces "the real risk of passing the tipping point that the United States passed many years ago where exploitation of a large undocumented immigrant workforce becomes the norm in some sectors".

He said while there were no hard figures on the extent of the problem, estimates in 2011 tipped up to 100,000 "undocumented workers" in Australia, a figure which could have risen in the years since.

The latest Immigration Department figures on visa over-stayers also showed there were some 62,700 people in July 2013 that had not left the country since their visa expired, but it was not clear how many of those were undocumented workers.

Dr Clibborn said a 2011 review of the system described it as the "biggest problem facing immigration authorities", and the lack of protections for workers, and fear of being exposed, was fertile grounds for exploitation.

He also said the Fair Work laws needed better enforcement.

While the Fair Work Act afforded all workers the same rights, Dr Clibborn said as illegal workers had no legal rights to work, any employment contract they entered into was legally void.

"It is unsurprising we don't have more of these cases, given if they report exploitation, they are basically exposing themselves as undocumented workers and risk deportation," he said.

While the Fair Work Ombudsman had focussed on industries including cleaning, agriculture and tourism, Dr Clibborn said the Ombudsman needed more resources.

There were only 93 compliance inspectors and 70 inspectors for dispute resolution and "early intervention" for the nation's 11.6 million-strong workforce.

The Productivity Commission is also examining issues including the minimum wage, industrial dispute and unfair dismissal laws, and will report later this year.

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