Migrants at Work: Unravelling the Web of Employment Law for New Arrivals

By Agata Wierzbowski | 12 Aug 15

The law does not operate effectively if it is not properly understood.

Yet few people have the skills required to understand the legal protections that apply to them. Sandra Fischer-Martins, in her refreshing lecture on the “right to understand”, describes our low level of literacy (legal and other) in a time of increasing complexity as a state of “information apartheid”.

As a first generation migrant, as well as a community lawyer, I am often faced with the limits of an information world drafted by lawyers. Every day at work I help people unpack their energy bills, or understand the terms of the loan documents they had unwittingly signed without being able to read them. Then, at home, I am again that person who my parents (for whom English is a second language), and people like them, turn to when they need to unravel complex documents.

This dearth of understanding is particularly significant in the area of work, that part of life from which many derive a sense of financial security, self-esteem, social cohesion and identity. It is amplified where the law is drafted in a language that is not one’s own. Secure income and employment conditions are key social determinants of health.

For new migrants, these are also key contributors to a successful settlement in a new place.

Members of newly arrived communities often experience poor employment conditions, while knowing little about their rights at work. They are particularly vulnerable to workplace exploitation for myriad reasons, including uncertain migration status, low English literacy and little support. This was confirmed in the preliminary report on the Footscray Community Legal Centre (FCLC) Employment Law Project titled Employment is the heart of successful settlement.

The report states:

“Newly arrived communities report high levels of exploitation in the workplace. In particular, they experience discrimination, frequently lose their jobs, are underpaid and denied basic entitlements. They also experience bullying, are forced into ‘sham contracts’ and work in unsafe jobs with high injury rates. Communities report a very low level of understanding of Australian employment laws and services, and a keen desire to learn more.”

New migrants’ relative ignorance about their rights at work, compounded by the difficulty in accessing effective remedies, only serves an industry of exploitative employment agents, employers and the “middle men” that come between them. This was reported recently in Slaving Away, a troubling Four Corners episode about exploitative work practices in the Australian farming industry.

Led by solicitor Catherine Hemingway, the FCLC Employment Law Project seeks to remedy this by training six bilingual new migrant representatives, each from a different migrant group, to educate their community on employment rights.

FCLC’s catchment area, in the western suburbs of Melbourne, is home to a diverse range of new migrant and refugee communities. Starting in June 2013, Catherine and the project team consulted community workers and newly arrived migrants on what the main legal problems were and what support was required.

The consultation confirmed a significant unmet legal need, and a series of recurring employment law issues experienced by new migrants including discrimination, underpayment and high workplace injury rates. There was a resounding call for face-to-face information sessions (rather than a telephone service), in people’s own languages, on what their rights were and how they could access meaningful assistance.

As a result, FCLC began offering free legal assistance to newly arrived and refugee people with a work-related legal problem. Recognising the importance of teaching people their rights at work under the law, not merely supporting them, a community legal education program was launched. On 20 April 2015 the project launched its “Train the Trainer” program at Maribyrnong City Council.

This program has trained six bilingual leaders from newly arrived and refugee communities over nine weeks as Community Employment Law Education Officers. These leaders are from the Sudanese, Congolese, Persian, Indian, Karen and Chin communities. Through the program, they have learned about employment law and visited key agencies that provide assistance to clients with a problem at work.

They were also instrumental in creating a suite of free resources on employment law rights specifically for a new migrant audience. These include six short videos, activity and answer sheets, and a template PowerPoint presentation. The officers have now commenced delivering information sessions to their communities using these materials, and referring individual community members to services when appropriate.

“It takes a lot of hard work,” Steve Jobs once said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.” Lawyers rarely do this hard work with law. We are, for the most part, poor communicators who submerge everyone else in impenetrable complexity.

It is lawyers who are responsible for the overly technical and alienating documents – legislation, contracts, terms and conditions – that govern so much of our lives, and are often the only instruments that separate us from each other. It is therefore also lawyers who should bear the responsibility of humbly unlearning and then relearning their craft, so they can better communicate the law to those who it is meant to serve.

The FCLC Employment Law Project is one example of this hard work well done.

For more information, including interviews with the Community Education Officers, visit: www.footscrayclc.org.au/train-the-trainer-project

Feature image: Peter Burge/ Flickr