author: Nick Toscano Origional Story: Sydney Morning Herald
Mohammad Zafar Rahimi sustained a serious workplace injury while working as a fruit cutter at the Dandenong Market. Photo: Penny Stephens
An explosion in the number of foreign-born workers in Australia has led to workplace safety concerns, according to confidential government research.
Documents obtained by Fairfax Media expose rising concerns from the federal government’s top job safety officials about an “almost certain” increase in injuries and fatalities among poorly paid migrant workers.
They also highlight a lack of meaningful intervention in what they say is an “emerging issue” nationally.
In its most comprehensive overview of the problem yet, Safe Work Australia concludes that visa-holders, refugees and permanent migrants are largely hired in low-end jobs such as farm labour or meat processing, and are suffering deadly workplace injuries at higher rates than other employees.
The documents – uncovered through freedom-of-information laws – also expose the failure of state and federal authorities to track and share crucial data that is urgently needed to respond.
“The increasing incidence of workplace injuries and fatalities involving at-risk migrant workers is almost certain,” the documents said.
“It is important that Safe Work Australia, workplace health and safety regulators and workers’ compensation authorities quickly build capacity and put in place measures to address … risks for at-risk migrant workers for now and into the future.”
The research found there were 680,000 temporary visa-holders with work rights living in Australia in 2014, while more than 640,000 permanent migrants and 75,000 refugees had arrived in the previous five years.
his year, the overall proportion of foreign-born Australian residents has hit a 120-year-high, at 28 per cent.
Many are over-represented in some of the country’s riskiest and dangerous industries, including farming, food processing, fruit-picking and construction, the report said.
Factors that increase their exposure to harm include poor language skills, being vulnerable to exploitation and “valuing job security over health and safety”.
Afghan refugee Mohammad Zafar Rahimi has had three of his fingers sliced open, and now lives with chronic pain from neck and spine damage, after working as a vegetable cutter at Melbourne’s Dandenong Market.
How many more operations can I go through? I’m not an animal
Disabled worker Mohammad Zafar Rahibi
Receiving flat-rate pay of just $14 an hour, he worked gruelling 14-hour shifts – from 3am to 5pm, with no rest breaks –and would chop up to 1400 cabbages a day using a blunt knife he had to sharpen on the pavement.
“I had to apply a lot of force. My pain aggravated and got worse day by day … and now my pain is constant, shooting from my neck and my back,” he said.
“I’ve had to have many operations on these important parts of my body … How many more operations can I go through? I’m not an animal.”
Mr Rahimi, a father of six who now lives on the disability pension, said he had never received workplace safety instructions, and was not provided adequately safe equipment needed to perform his job.
Among the Safe Work Australia report’s most damning findings are the results of a previously unseen survey of more than 1000 Australian workplaces, revealing 91 per cent of employers with staff from non-English-speaking backgrounds had failed to provide safety information translated into other languages.
The report’s finding that migrants are more likely than other workers to be injured or killed on the job are based on workplace inspection and enforcement activity, anecdotal data and international research.
But the true extent of the problem in Australia remained largely hidden because of a “significant gap” in statistics, the report said, with regulators including state workplace watchdogs and the Immigration Department failing to track and exchange crucial information.
Central to the problem is the unexplained decision to shelve arrangements established between state and federal agencies in 2010 to regularly share the names of all 457 visa-holders and the businesses employing them, and details of workplace injuries and deaths.
The arrangements suddenly stopped after little use, leaving “no data source that adequately identifies and collects information”.
Workers’ compensation lawyer Lachlan Fitch, a principal at Maurice Blackburn, said the report revealed that government authorities needed to do more.
“We regularly see employers pay insufficient regard to inducting migrant workers in safe work practices; it’s often very basic on-the-job training that may not be properly understood,” he said.
“Addressing the problem needs to be a priority for all levels of government because the lives and health and safety of workers are at risk.”
Mr Fitch said the report demonstrated the need to re-instate data-sharing arrangements between watchdogs and immigration authorities, which would lead to better education, inspection and enforcement actions.
The report said state-based activities to address migrant worker risks had been previously conducted on ad hoc or industry-wide basis.
Safe Work Australia said it understood that some jurisdictions identified as failing to have migrant-specific intervention activities had introduced targeted programs after the report.
WorkSafe Victoria said the report “clearly states that WorkSafe addresses the risks associated with migrant workers as part of industry-wide compliance and education programs”.
The agency also said it was preparing to launch a “major public awareness campaign” in October to alert Chinese-speaking workers of their rights, and was working to address migrant risks with other federal agencies and state regulators.
SafeWork NSW said there had been 70 workers’ compensation claims involving 457-visa workers in three years, costing $1.46 million. WorkSafe Victoria does not track victims’ visa status.
“SafeWork NSW is working to better identify the needs of high-risk groups that include workers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, those on temporary visas and migrant workers,” a spokeswoman said.
“From 2017, SafeWork NSW has committed to conduct insight research and analytics and engagement with stakeholder to establish a baseline to measure improvements in health and safety outcomes for at risk workers.”
A spokeswoman for the Immigration Department said it was prepared to share information with state regulators.