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Fact Sheet 87 – Initiatives to Combat Illegal Work in Australia

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Only Australian citizens, permanent residents of Australia and New Zealand citizens who have entered Australia on a valid passport are allowed to stay and work in Australia without restriction.

All foreign nationals who want to travel to and stay in Australia must obtain visas before arriving.

If foreign nationals wish to work in Australia, they must also obtain a visa that gives them permission to work.
Example: People who come as tourists, or to visit family and friends, are not permitted to work in Australia.

Who are illegal workers?

Illegal workers are non-Australian citizens who are working in Australia without a visa or who are in Australia lawfully but working in breach of their visa conditions.

Problems created by illegal workers

Illegal workers create a number of problems within the Australian community.

They:

  • reduce employment opportunities for those with permission to work in Australia
  • place an additional burden on the taxpayer in terms of costs associated with locating and removing illegal workers, uncollected taxes and fraudulently claimed government benefits
  • disadvantage employers who employ legal workers because they may not be able to compete with those who employ and under-pay illegal workers
  • may be subject to exploitation and organised criminal activity
  • may not meet the stringent health and character tests undertaken by holders of a visa with permission to work.

Statistics

Each year the department locates a significant number of people who have been working illegally.

As at 30 June 2013, it was estimated that 62 700 people were unlawfully living in Australia.

Around 85 per cent of these people are estimated to be of working age (between ages 18 and 65 years). In addition, some people who are lawfully in Australia are working in breach of their visa conditions.

In 2012-13, the department located  2161 non-citizens working illegally in Australia. The top three industries illegal workers were employed in included:

  • agriculture, forestry, and fishing
  • accommodation and food services
  • construction.

What happens to illegal workers?

People who work in Australia without immigration authority or who do not comply with the work condition attached to their visas, for example, by working more hours than their visa allows, are breaking Australian law.

The department treats the issue of people working illegally or in breach of visa conditions very seriously and is committed to working with the community, employers, labour suppliers and industry to combat illegal work in Australia.

The department requires visa holders to comply with their visa conditions. Action against those who seriously breach these requirements can lead to possible visa cancellation, removal from Australia and re-entry bans of up to three years.

The department undertakes a broad range of activities to address illegal work. Employer awareness information sessions are conducted to educate employers, industry peak bodies and unions about immigration status checking with the aim of reducing the number of illegal workers.

The department also works with the Fair Work Ombudsman, Australian Taxation Office, Department of Human Services, Australian Federal Police and state police authorities to locate and identify illegal workers.

Penalties for employing an illegal worker

Since 2007 it has been a criminal offence to employ a non-citizen who is not allowed to work in Australia. These offences apply to employers, labour hire companies, employment agencies and anyone who allows illegal workers to work, or refers illegal workers for work.

On 1 June 2013, new laws introduced civil penalties and infringement notices for businesses that allow illegal work. The law also broadens who can be held liable and provides new evidence gathering powers. The existing criminal penalties remain.

The new penalties apply where a person allows or refers:

  • an unlawful non-citizen to work
  • a lawful non-citizen to work in breach of a visa condition that limits or restricts work.

Businesses can avoid penalties by taking reasonable steps to check their workers can be legally employed. 

Further information on reasonable steps that businesses can take is available on the department's website.
See: Employing Legal Workers

Below are the penalty categories and amounts:


Penalty categories and amounts
Categories Maximum penalty
Illegal Worker Warning Notice No fine:
  • administrative warning
Infringement Fine:
  • individual – $3060
  • body corporate – $15 300
Civil penalty Fine:
  • individual – $15 300
  • body corporate – $76 500
Criminal offence Fine:
  • individual – $20 400
    (and/or two years imprisonment)
  • body corporate – $102 000
Aggravated criminal offence Fine:
  • individual – $51 000
    (and/or five years imprisonment)
  • body corporate – $255 000

An example of an individual would be a sole trader; a body corporate would be a company.
Note: All penalties are calculated per illegal worker.

Services to assist employers

The department provides a number of services to help employers and labour suppliers to check if an employee has permission to work in Australia.

Visa Entitlement Verification Online (VEVO) service

VEVO is a free online government  service that allows employers, labour suppliers and other organisations to easily check if non-citizen employees have permission to work. To access this service you must register with VEVO and the service is then available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Further information on how to register for Visa Entitlement Verification Online (VEVO) is available.

VEVO email

Visa holders have the ability to forward their visa work entitlement information directly from VEVO to an employer. Employers who do not have access to VEVO are able to receive this information via email.

Employers' immigration hotline

This telephone service provides information about employing workers from overseas and general information about visa conditions. This service is free and operates from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm, Monday to Friday.
Telephone: 1800 040 070

Do you have information about suspected offences or fraud against Australia's immigration and citizenship laws (such as persons working illegally)?

You can report information about people living or working illegally in Australia, and suspected offences or fraud being committed against Australia's immigration and citizenship programmes, through the online Immigration Dob-in Service.

More information

Further information for employers, labour suppliers and recruitment companies is available on the department’s website.
See: Employing Legal Workers

Fact Sheet 87. Produced by the National Communications Branch, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Canberra.

Last reviewed December 2013