Ending the Exploitation of Refugee and Migrant Workers

Catherine Hemingway, WEstjustice

Getting work is the most important step to successful settlement in a new country, says lawyer Catherine Hemingway, but for people who have recently arrived in Australia it can also be the start of a lot of new problems.

“There are so many issues that people face. Underpayment and non-payment, high workplace injury rates, job insecurity, discrimination and bullying, people losing their jobs in unfair situations, people not being aware of their rights or where to go if they have a problem.

“These injustices continue when people are unable to take action.”

Catherine is the Policy Director and Employment & Practice Manager at WEstjustice Community Legal Centre in Footscray. When she began her role in 2013 she quickly found that work rights were an area of unmet need for clients.

“Employment law issues were coming up a lot in our work with newly-arrived people, but there are very few community legal centres that offer those services.”

To get a fuller picture of the problem, the legal centre began a project to explore and document the working experiences of newly-arrived and refugee communities across Melbourne’s west.

“The first stage of the project was research and consultation: we did a literature review, we met with a lot of stakeholders to get an idea of what the problems are, what services are out there, what the unmet needs are and how we can address them.”

This preliminary work confirmed that the problems are widespread, and found that the mainstream services offering solutions – the Fair Work Ombudsman, Worksafe – weren’t always appropriate for newly-arrived communities. With that in mind, WEstjustice piloted an employment law service and a community legal education programme.

“Over and over again we were hearing that mainstream services are great for clients who are able to use those self-help models, but they weren’t accessible for those who were really vulnerable. Some of our clients don’t speak much English, some may have experienced torture back home and have a real fear of government agencies.

“We found there to be a real need for face-to-face assistance from a trusted community organisation.”

Catherine joined the Melbourne Social Equity Institute’s Community Fellows Program in 2016. She took the evidence collected through three years of consultation and trial, conducted a literature review, and used both to make recommendations for changes that could better protect vulnerable workers.

“The Community Fellows Program enabled me to get out of the office and have a space to work on that report. It was very helpful to be in that environment, and to have some relief from my day-to-day duties so that I could really focus on it.”

Professor Joo-Cheong Tham (Melbourne Law School) served as academic mentor on the project. Catherine says that his guidance was very helpful.

I had worked closely with Joo-Cheong on other campaigns. He was instrumental in this project from the beginning too – he connected me with other academics and provided guidance on the surveys that we used in the consultation phase.

The result was the ‘Not Just Work’ report, an evidence base on which WEstjustice have built much of their advocacy work in the years since.

“We really rely on the report when we make submissions.

“That has included advocating to change the Fair Work Act to better protect vulnerable workers. Underpayment is one of the biggest issues that our clients face, but it can be really hard for them to make claims if they haven’t kept records of what hours they’ve worked. The law says that employers must keep a record, but the onus is on our clients to prove their claim.

“Off the back of the report, we lobbied for and were able to get an amendment that said that if employers don’t provide those records on request, what the employee says stands in court unless the employer can disprove it. That’s had a huge impact in terms of our clients being able to confidently bring claims even if they don’t have perfect evidence.

“That was really exciting to be able to work towards that.”

Photograph of Catherine Hemingway holding the Not Just Work Report

Download the Not Just Work Report (PDF)

The employment law service and community legal education program are ongoing at WEstjustice, and the centre has just launched a working group for Victorian community legal centres. Catherine says that as many as ten are now trying to do work in this space.

“There’s so much need, it’s so specialised and on such short timeframes. The aim of this network is to try to share our knowledge and skills, and to support those centres that are just starting out.”

Professor Joo-Cheong Tham said that the feedback he gets from community fellows is that the program fills a real need.

“It’s a significant innovation for the university, in terms of fostering collaboration and exchange between academics and civil society.”

Catherine agreed. She said that building and sharing knowledge is the best of the university-community organisation relationship.

“That is exactly why initiatives like the Community Fellows Program are so important. Applying academic rigour to the work that we do in the community only strengthens our arguments for change.”