Employers in construction and other sectors throughout Australia who seek to hire foreign workers will be subject to more stringent requirements regarding labour market testing whilst those in the building sector specifically who employ foreign workers as more than fifteen percent of their workforce will have to employ those workers on special labour agreements under new rules which will are set to be introduced if Labour wins office in the upcoming federal election.

New rules will also apply to labour hire companies, which will have to be registered and have to be run by those who are considered to be fit and proper people to do so.

Announced as part of Labor’s election pitch to workers, the new policies are designed to crack down on exploitation of foreign workers as well as that of workers employed through labour hire arrangements.

In terms of foreign workers, Labor says it will introduce more stringent requirements which employers seeking to import foreign workers under a 457 visa class system have to meet in order to demonstrate that they had first tested the local market and were genuinely not able to meet their needs through local labour.

This includes a requirement that all jobs be advertised locally for a minimum of four weeks and a ban on job ads either targeting foreign workers specifically or setting unrealistic skill and experience requirements.

Furthermore, employers in specified sectors who have more than a specified portion of their workforce made up of made up of 457 visa holder will be forced to employ the workers concerned under a labour agreement.

These are agreements negotiated with the immigration department which spell not only the terms and conditions under which the worker in question will be hired and spell out undertakings which the employer in question agrees to commit with regard to training and up-skilling of the local workforce.

Initially, these rules will apply to employers within the construction sector specifically who use 457 workers for more than fifteen percent of their workforce.

Labor will progressively add more industries to the list to which these rules apply in consultation with the department.

Finally, fines levied on employers who use the 457 program will be increased, with funds used to beef up enforcement efforts.

In terms of labour hire, meanwhile, all companies performing labour hire services in Australia will be required to hold a licence, whilst employers will be prosecuted if they knowingly or recklessly hire staff through an unlicensed labour hire company.

A separate body will be set up within the Fair Work Ombudsman to oversee the new regime, with licences being granted only to those deemed to be fit and proper persons to conduct a labour hire operation.

Whilst the latest moves are largely a response to the exploitation and underpayment of thousands of foreign workers employed at 7-Eleven stores, unions in the construction sector remain wary of both the foreign worker visa program and the use of labour hire agencies – saying that the former has been used to exploit foreign workers in the construction sector and that the latter has been exploited as a means through which to avoid payment of employee entitlements and to undercut the wages and conditions of workers.

Shadow employment minister Brendan O’Connor said the moves were necessary in light of recent abuses and would ensure that all workers were employed on fair working arrangements.

“Our policy includes measures that will ensure that, no matter how a person is employed or which visa a person holds – skilled temporary work, student or working holiday – all workers are treated with fairness and respect,” O’Connor said, referring specifically to the foreign worker changes.

However, construction industry lobby groups slammed the move.

Speaking particularly about the new foreign worker rules, Housing Industry Association workplace spokesperson David Humphrey said the 457 program provided an essential means by which to fill essential skills gaps within the construction sector as significant numbers of retiring workers exceeded current numbers of new graduating apprentices.

Humphrey says protections for foreign workers employed through the 457 visa program are already adequate.

“Rather than introducing policies designed to unnecessarily penalise and discourage the use of temporary migrant workers, an incoming government’s policy settings should be set to ensure that migrant labour can more simply, effectively, fairly and affordably be sourced to fill gaps that local workers cannot fill,” Humphrey said.