Illegal workers in Australia

There may be up to 100,000 people living and working in Australia illegally. And it is an issue that is much greater than just students working outside their visa conditions.
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There may be up to 100,000 people living and working in Australia illegally. And it is an issue that is much greater than just students working outside their visa conditions. It extends all the way to organized tax and welfare fraud, to the very worst of human trafficking.

While much public attention is focused on the 12,300 plus illegal boat arrivals so far this year, it is becoming clearer that the numbers who arrive by plane, and subsequently overstay their visas, come close to matching the numbers arriving by boat.

More: Illegal boat arrivals, what it really costs

There is also strong evidence indicating that the overall numbers of illegal workers are growing on a yearly basis. Particularly in industries such as; agriculture, building, construction, catering and food service.

And the relevant authorities seem only able to find and expel a tiny fraction. And the penalties for employing illegal workers have been identified as being less than adequate, particularly in the face of organized illegal activity.

Who can legally work in Australia?

It is an offence to knowingly allow a person to work illegally, or refer an illegal worker for work, where that worker is someone from overseas who is either illegally in Australia or who is working in breach of their visa conditions.

To work in Australia, you have to be a citizen, or if you’re a non-citizen, you need the correct visas that will permit you to gain employment.

You can legally work in Australia if you are:

  • an Australian citizen
  • a New Zealand citizen with a valid New Zealand passport
  • a permanent resident of Australia
  • a non-citizen with a valid visa that has work rights
  • a temporary resident who has permission to work
  • a student who has permission to work.

If a company, in a direct legal relationship, with an illegal worker is found to be employing someone who does not fulfill the above criteria, they can be fined up to $66,000 per illegal worker. Plus, individual employers can be fined up $13,200, and face up to two years in jail.

The Act also imposes stricter penalties where an illegal worker is being exploited through forced labour, slavery or sexual servitude. This can be up to five years’ imprisonment and fines up to $33 000 for individuals and $165 000 per illegal worker for companies.

There is no mandatory requirement for employers to check employment entitlements.

How many illegal workers are there in Australia?

In 2011, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) estimated that there were approximately 59,000 foreign citizens living in Australia who were here illegally. This is an increase from 53,000 in 2010 and 48,000 in 2009.

However, a 2010 government review of the Migration Amendment Act suggested that this number may actually be as high as 100,000.

The same report also concluded that the Act “has not proved to be an effective deterrent against the small number of employers and labour suppliers who persist in employing or referring non-citizens who do not have permission to work in Australia”*.

Of the people who are living in Australia illegally, the large majority arrived here on valid visas that have since expired. Around 75 per cent of these people arrived in Australia on tourist or work visas. One in seven arrived on student visas. One in 15 disappeared after being granted temporary residency.

The top countries by origin, 2010**

7490 China
5010 United States
3890 Malaysia
3470 United Kingdom
2570 South Korea
2460 Indonesia
2430 Philippines

As around 80 per cent of those working in Australia without a visa are of working age and as more than half of these people have been here for more than five years, it is reasonable to assume that a large proportion are working illegally.

However detection and enforcement has proven to be a difficult task. In 2009-10 the DIAC located only 1400 people working illegally. While in 2008-09 only 990 had been identified.

The DIAC identified the following top industries within which identified illegal workers were employed:

  • agriculture, forestry, and fishing (largely farming)
  • accommodation, cafes and restaurants
  • construction.

During the year ended 31 March there were 5,499,026 visitors to Australia aged 15 years and over. The DIAC also reports that less than 0.1 per cent of visitors overstay their visa. Of those that do, most leave soon after, or even before, there is involvement from the Department of Immigration.

Last year, only 6720 of those without valid visas were sent home.

Why are illegal workers such a problem?

The fines are steep, yet we still have illegal workers. Why is it such a big deal?

The DIAC has identified a number of primary concerns regarding illegal workers. Economically, many problems are created by the use of illegal workers. The main issue is they deny Australian workers and permanent residents the opportunity to obtain a job.

Plus, once discovered, the costs of locating and removing illegal workers is worn by the taxpayer.

Additional burdens on our economic system include the loss of tax, as illegal workers are not paid through a formal system thus no tax is collected. In some instances, illegal workers are also fraudulently claiming government benefits.

It is common that illegal workers, who tend to be paid in cash, are employed at below the market rate. This means that companies that employ illegal workers may offer products or services at a price below that of their competitors. Thus, those that do not use illegal workers may be disadvantaged in the market.

On an individual level, there is very valid concern that illegal workers are exploited, are working in unsafe or hazardous workplaces, being put to work in criminal activities or are the victims of human trafficking and sexual abuse.

Additional concerns include the possibility that illegal workers may not meet the stringent health and character tests that must be undertaken to obtain a valid visa with work entitlements.

What is being done?

It is the responsibility of an employer to check that their employees are legally allowed to work in Australia. So, if you are an employer or run a company, ensure each staff member is legally allowed to work.

The Department of Immigration operates services that check on expired visas, and identify and remove illegal workers. But as Australia is seen as a land of great opportunity, it is likely that those here illegally will continue to seek work while they remain in the country.

Illegal workers can be reported to the department of Immigration and Citizenship on: 1800 009 623. You can remain anonymous if you wish.  

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Related links:

* The 2010 Review of the Migration Amendment *Employer Sanctions) Act 2007
** Based on FOI data released to The Courier-Mail 2010

The views in article are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of Telstra BigPond.