Australia to probe exploitation of migrant labour

SYDNEY - An Australian state government said Tuesday it would hold an inquiry into the exploitation of migrant workers after a television investigation revealed foreigners toiling in "slave labour" conditions.

Using footage from secret cameras, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation found migrants were being grossly underpaid and working up to 18 hours a day in harsh conditions.

"There's slave labour in this country," National Party member of parliament Keith Pitt told the Four Corners programme about workers in farms and factories picking and packing supermarket foods.

"It's something we need to get rid of." The programme interviewed young workers who were thousands of dollars underpaid, in some cases earning Aus$18 (S$18.78) an hour instead of the minimum legal rate for the job of Aus$25.

In other cases, a group of labourers from Hong Kong and Taiwan were being paid just Aus$13-14 an hour for backbreaking work while Australian workers doing the same job were paid more than Aus$20.

"I've thought this is very unfair ever since I came here," said one tearful Hong Kong worker now picking cucumbers in Queensland.

By comparison, Hong Kong this month raised its minimum wage to HK$32.5 (S$5.60).

Workers employed under unscrupulous labour hire contractors were also toiling under false names and in the case of vulnerable women, faced sexual harassment, the report said.

The practices were widespread, ABC said, particularly in farming communities in Queensland and Victoria states.

Natalie Hutchins, Victoria's minister for industrial relations, said the government was putting together a committee to conduct an inquiry aimed at cracking down on unscrupulous operators and would push for a national response.

"This is not just about the underpayment of wages - this is about creating an underclass of foreign workers," she posted on her Facebook site.

"The Victorian government will also advocate for a national response to what is a national shame." Pitt also called for the government to fund a taskforce to go undercover to investigate the exploitation of workers to "try to crack down on this".

"I would think you would find that there's effectively a whole heap of crooks making an awful lot of money out of the exploitation of a whole lot of people who really don't know any different," he told the ABC.