Seventeen foreign workers have been detained face possible deportation after being found to work illegally on a multi-residential construction site in Brisbane.

A team of 50 immigration officers nabbed the workers – who included thirteen people from China and four from Malaysia – earlier this week, according to a joint statement from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Federal Member for Petrie Luke Howarth.

Seven of the Chinese men and three of the Malaysians involved were unlawful non-citizens whilst the other six Chinese and one Malaysian were working in breach of their visa conditions, the statement said.

All were working illegally in the construction sector.

The incident follows an earlier case last week in which more than a dozen Chinese workers were nabbed in pre-dawn raids on four homes in Perth’s south-east.

Those workers, including ten men and two women, had been working in a variety of trades including plastering, painting and ceiling fixing – some for up to five years.

The latest developments come amid ongoing debate about the nation’s foreign worker visa program, which industry groups such as Master Builders Australia say fill important skill gaps but unions say are rife with abuse.

In January, the union said its New South Wales branch was pursuing around 20 companies in Sydney alone for underpayment of wages and abuse of safety procedures, with many of the workers in question believed to be unlawful staff.

In a statement, Dutton said the government was pursuing not just illegal workers themselves but also employers who broke the law.

“Australians can be assured that we committed to being as tough on those who seek to rort our migration programmes as we are on those who arrive illegally by boat,” Dutton said.

“We will devote the same resolve, resources and commitment that is necessary to get the job done.”

Maximum penalties per illegal worker include infringements from $3,060 for individuals and $15,300 for companies and to $51,000 and/or five years imprisonment for individuals and $255,000 for companies in the case of aggravated criminal offences.

Foreigners found to be working illegally face deportation and fines of up to $10,000.

Department figures suggest as many as 51,000 people could be working in illegally in Australia.

In 2013/14, more than 20,000 people were caught either working illegally or breaching the conditions of their visa in some other way.