Inside Story

“Australia has brought out things about myself that I thought wouldn’t exist”

Temporary migration is fuelling a new boom in migration from Italy. But trying to settle permanently can be a disillusioning process

Peter Mares 4 January 2016 3425 words

Timing problem: Camilla Pivato in the film 88 Days.

When Camilla Pivato walked around Melbourne on her first day in Australia she felt she was finally in the right place. “I just fell in love with Australia and the Australian way of life,” she tells me by Skype from Rimini, on the Adriatic Coast. “It’s a really, really happy country and coming from Italy you can really feel the difference.”

After two years in Australia as a working backpacker she was hoping to settle permanently. She had a job offer from an employer willing to sponsor her on a four-year 457 skilled worker visa and sought expert migration advice to assist with the application. Thousands of dollars later, though, she was forced to leave Australia at short notice and was banned from coming back for three years.

Pivato was a twenty-nine-year-old costume designer, struggling to find steady work in her field, when she decided to take an extended break in Australia. Like more than 210,000 other young visitors in 2013–14, she arrived on a working holiday visa. Under reciprocal agreements with nineteen countries, Australia allows travellers aged between eighteen and thirty to live and work here for up to a year, with the possibility of a second twelve-month visa if they undertake at least eighty-eight days of “specified work” (in agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining or construction) in a regional area.

When Pivato arrived in March 2013 she intended to remain only until July, when her return flight was booked. But as the months ticked by she postponed her departure. With the expiry of her first working holiday visa drawing closer, she decided to work for eighty-eight days to secure a second year’s stay. She’s far from alone in making that decision: since the option of a second visa was introduced ten years ago, the number of travellers taking it up has grown steadily, from fewer than 8000 in 2006–07 to more than 45,000 in 2013–14.

Pivato took a job packing fruit in Shepparton in central Victoria – a town, as she puts it, with “more cows than people.” At the start of the harvest season she was packing cherries, then peaches and plums, and at the end of summer apples and pears. If not for the possibility of securing a second visa, she would never have considered doing this kind of work, let alone sharing accommodation and her private life with thirty other young women. “I thought I was too old for that,” she says. She was surprised to find herself enjoying both the job and the lifestyle.

Other Italian visitors have had this experience too. “I would never have imagined in my whole life that I would be working as a watermelon picker,” says a backpacker in 88 Giorni (88 Days), a film documenting the experiences of young Italians working in Australian agriculture. In Italy, he says, harvesting watermelons would be “discredited as a job that no one would do.” Harvest work is hot, dirty, difficult and poorly paid; in Italy, as in Australia, it is largely reserved for migrants. “I now understand how foreign workers feel,” says another visa holder in the film. “Here I am the immigrant.”

Like backpackers from other countries, some of the young Italians report being abused, exploited and underpaid. “Mildura’s farms are the worst thing that has ever happened in my life,” says Antonio in 88 Giorni. A young woman remarks that if you work this hard, at least you should be treated with respect.

Yet if the interviews for 88 Giorni are anything to go by, many young Italians find their work picking pumpkins or driving tractors enjoyable, in some cases even liberating. Some, like Camilla Pivato, who also features in 88 Giorni, decide they want to settle here. “Australia opens your horizons and makes you feel incredibly young,” she says in the film. “Australia has brought out things about myself that I thought wouldn’t exist, such as the ability to adapt that I thought I didn’t have any more.”

Young Italians are not just helping to harvest produce in rural Australia, they are also staffing city restaurants and cafes. Postwar migrants who came to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s gave the Melbourne suburb of Carlton its genuine Italian flavour. As the Italian community aged, though, the Lygon Street coffee strip risked becoming a caricature of its former self, its reputation hanging by a slender thread of marketing. But thanks to the latest wave of Italian migrants, Lygon Street is getting its zip back. When I ate lunch at a self-proclaimed Gastronomia Italiana in November, a waiter told me that all the stylish young staff in the establishment were recent Italian migrants. Some (I suspect most) are here on temporary visas; others have made the transition to permanent residence.

The same phenomenon is evident in Sydney. Over dinner in a chic new pizzeria in Walsh Bay, Michele (Mike) Grigoletti and his colleague Silvia Pianelli have fun guessing by their accents which regions of Italy the waiters hail from. Both Grigoletti and Pianelli settled in Australia relatively recently, and they devote much of their time to gathering data and stories from the new wave of Italian migration of which they are a part.

Grigoletti and Pianelli formed the independent study group Australia Solo Andata (Australia One Way), which has embarked on a research project called “From Temporary to Permanent: The New Migration of Young Italians in Australia.” With sponsorship from the Fondazione Migrantes, the Italian Bishops’ Conference’s reference body on migration, they have published reports on migration issues as well as shooting and editing 88 Giorni, which is due to be screened in Rome early this year.

Grigoletti links the surge in temporary migration to Australia to economic problems in Italy triggered by the global financial crisis, which left more than 40 per cent of under-twenty-fives unemployed. He points out that Italian backpackers are, on average, at the older end of the working holiday spectrum, and that many are highly qualified university graduates unable to find work in their chosen field. “They tend to come when they are twenty-eight, twenty-nine or thirty,” he says. “This shows that they are not taking a gap year, but come because they have given up. Their spirits have been crushed.”

This was Pianelli’s experience. She had several unpaid internships after graduating from university but none that led to ongoing work. So she came to Australia on a temporary visa. “I couldn’t live in Italy any more,” she says. “It is better to pick vegetables or do whatever basic job in Australia than to stay in Italy and be told you are too young and need to learn and not good enough to get a job.”

A recent report by the Migration Policy Institute supports this assessment. It says that southern European nations like Italy have “in some ways returned to their earlier, more traditional roles, as significant countries of emigration.” The difference is “that migrants today are younger, better educated, and more skilled than past waves, with a high proportion of professionals among those leaving.”

When she arrived in Shepparton, Camilla Pivato was the only Italian in town, but after clocking up her eighty-eight days and securing her second visa, she decided to stay on. “I didn’t mind Shep at all,” she says. “It’s a simple life. Why not? It was much easier than living in Melbourne.” Pivato had previously spent four months working in a cafe in Moonee Ponds. “It was fine but people were quite fussy about their coffee,” she says.

Life was also cheaper in Shepparton, enabling Pivato to save more towards the cost of a student visa. She was contemplating a degree in business management – a course that could put her on the path to permanent residency, something that neither fruit packing nor costume design was going to do.

The owners of the fruit-packing business came up with an alternative. They offered to engage Pivato as the company’s human resources coordinator and sponsor her for a four-year 457 temporary skilled work visa.

Pivato grabbed the opportunity and started work immediately. She travelled to Melbourne to help select workers and supervised all aspects of their employment in Shepparton. “I would choose the girls, hire girls, fire girls, train them in the work in the packing shed, do quality control, look after their wages and collect the rent every Monday,” she says. (The business runs two on-site hostels for its workers.)

She was very happy with the arrangement. “It was much easier than getting a student visa,” she says. “Besides, I am thirty-one and I have already studied a lot.” She liked and trusted her employers – European migrants from an earlier generation – who she says were like family to her. But they didn’t have much experience with sponsoring visa applicants, so, on the recommendation of a work colleague, she engaged registered migration agent Dennis Allan, owner of Prestige Migration Services in Melbourne, to help with the paperwork.

Pivato says that she first met with Allan in late January 2015, about six weeks before her second working holiday visa was due to expire, and that she signed the service agreement for him to prepare the 457 sponsorship and visa applications in his presence on 2 February 2015. She jumped through the other required hoops, like passing an English language test, and paid Allan $8000 in fees. Then she returned to work in Shepparton and waited for a call to say her visa had been lodged.

No news came. Pivato says she called Prestige Migration Services repeatedly and was told not to worry. When the 19 March expiry date of her existing visa passed she became more anxious, but she says Dennis Allan told her everything was in hand. When she repeatedly asked for a copy of her visa application, though, he gave a variety of reasons why that wasn’t possible, including computer problems and alleged difficulties with the departmental website, or promised he would send the documentation the next day. Finally, on 7 May, an exasperated Pivato called the immigration department directly to clarify the status of her application. An officer told her that no documentation had been lodged in her name and that she was in Australia unlawfully. Pivato was told to report immediately to the department’s Melbourne office, where she was given a four-week bridging visa and told to leave the country before 4 June.

When Pivato confronted Dennis Allan, she says he told her that it was “just a little mistake” and tried to convince her to pay him even more money to sort it out. Pivato refused, and demanded her $8000 back. In the weeks that remained to her, she turned up at Allan’s office almost daily asking for her refund. “He kept making up excuses,” she says. “Like he shows me a receipt, telling me that he had transferred the money into my bank account, but could not explain why I did not receive it.”

Allan was not the only person who sought to take advantage of Pivato’s desire to stay in Australia. One day, Pivato was pleading her case at the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in central Melbourne. The interaction left her distressed and tearful. At that moment a stranger approached and asked her what was going on. He then encouraged her to go outside, where he identified himself as a migration adviser and offered to lodge a partner visa on her behalf – for a fee of $12,000. Luckily, she didn’t take the bait. She was in a relationship at the time, but not one that would have met the relevant criteria.

Besides, says lawyer Melinda Jackson, who represented her at the time, Pivato’s application would have been rejected outright because by the time she got in touch with the department she had already overstayed her visa by more than twenty-eight days.

“Her timing was unfortunate,” says Jackson. If Pivato had called within those twenty-eight days, immigration department staff may have been able to make allowances for her circumstances and enable her to submit the 457 application late. Once that time threshold had passed, however, she fell foul of “public interest criterion 4014” of the migration regulations, which made it all but impossible for her to obtain any other visa onshore. What’s more, the over-stay activated an automatic three-year ban on her returning to Australia on any other temporary visa.

The ban can only be waived if there are “compelling circumstances” affecting Australia’s interests or “compassionate or compelling circumstances” affecting the interests of an Australian citizen or permanent resident. In the eyes of immigration department officials, being ripped off or deliberately misled by a migration agent does not meet this test.

Jackson tried to argue that Pivato’s case does affect Australia’s interests, because it involves potential fraud committed by a migration agent working in an industry regulated by the federal government. But her closely argued twenty-page submission was rejected with a dismissive half-page response. An internal appeal to the delegate’s manager also failed. After this, Pivato and her lawyer had nowhere left to turn.

“This is administrative decision-making with no recourse to the courts,” says Jackson. “You get arbitrary, terrible decisions and can’t do anything about it.” There is not even the possibility of intervention by the immigration minister, because ministerial discretion can only be triggered by the decision of a court or tribunal.

When I was growing up just outside Adelaide in the 1960s and 1970s, I would sometimes meet my father for lunch in the city. After the meal he would invariably take me to a small Italian cafe in the ornate Adelaide Arcade, where he would order a short black and I would have a cappuccino. In those days it was one of the rare places equipped with an espresso machine. If we went out in the city in the evening, my father might indulge me with tartufo or cassata from the Flash Gelati Bar in Hindley Street. Gelato and espresso were novelties – a gift to the tastebuds of Adelaide courtesy of the postwar wave of Italian migrants.

In the years between 1947 and 1954, Australia’s Italian-born population more than tripled in size. It doubled again between 1954 and 1961 and continued to grow for several more years, peaking at around 290,000 people in the 1971 census. For at least thirty years, the Italian-born were second only to the British as the largest overseas-born group in Australia.

When Mike Grigoletti tells me that the scale of temporary Italian migration to Australia today rivals the permanent migration that changed the flavours of my Adelaide childhood, I am surprised. But when I do my own calculations, I find the numbers bear him out, although the time frame to date is far shorter, and it remains to be seen if the trend will continue.

Over the two-and-a-half decades from 1947, Australia’s Italian-born population increased by an average of about 11,000 people per year; during the peak period between 1954 and 1961, that number was 15,000. By comparison, around 13,000 young Italians have come to Australia as first-time working holiday-makers annually since 2012. A few thousand more have been granted temporary visas as international students or skilled workers. And the data suggests that, like Camilla Pivato, a significant proportion of these young Italians will extend their stay or settle – if they can.

Pivato’s lawyer, Melinda Jackson, helped her to lodge a complaint against Dennis Allan with the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority, or OMARA, the immigration department’s division responsible for regulating professional standards and integrity in the migration advice industry. Six months later, the only evidence of progress on Pivato’s complaint is a letter from OMARA informing her that the regulator would “shortly be sending a notice to Mr Allan under Part 3 of the Migration Act 1958 and giving him the option of making a submission in response to the notice.”

Jackson suspects that Pivato isn’t alone, and that Allan has been “doing similar things to people in similar circumstances.” She believes it is quite possible that OMARA is compiling a set of complaints against the agent before proceeding. (When I attempted to confirm this I was told that the Privacy Act prevented OMARA from disclosing whether a complaint has been made about a migration agent because this is “personal information.”)

But even if OMARA upholds a complaint against Allan, it will be largely symbolic. The regulator can’t cancel Allan’s registration as a migration agent because that lapsed on 9 March 2015, ten days before Pivato’s visa expired. The best OMARA can do is bar Allan from re-registering as a migration agent.

“It’s a pretty feeble complaints investigative body,” says Jackson. OMARA cannot even get Pivato’s money back from Allan. In its letter to Pivato, OMARA noted that “the Authority can recommend a refund, but we cannot order it.” For that, Pivato must take civil action before the courts.

With the help of Melinda Jackson, Pivato tried to go down this route too, and on 4 September 2015 the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal ordered Allan’s firm, Prestige Migration Services, to pay Pivato “the sum of $8000.” Her chances of ever seeing this money are remote.

“The order itself can’t do anything,” says Jackson. “In any civil process, enforcement becomes the question.” The next step would be to launch proceedings in the Magistrates’ Court to enforce the VCAT order. But this would require Pivato to be present in Australia.

Even if Pivato were able to return to Melbourne to commence court proceedings, tracking Allan down and serving him with court papers could be a challenge. Allan did not turn up to the VCAT hearing, and the Australian Securities and Investment Commission has since given notice that it is proposing to deregister his company.

An online search for Prestige Migration Services threw up two different business addresses and two different phone numbers, both of which had been disconnected. My calls to the mobile number listed on the company website went unanswered.

I did, however, get a response to my attempt to contact Dennis Allan via the company’s online contact form. A woman called Pauline called me back and, when I explained my inquiry, she told me that Allan was “not really working at the moment.” She said she would pass on my contact details when he came back. When I asked if Prestige Migration Services was still a going concern, she said it was, and that the threat of deregistration by ASIC was “being sorted out by the accountant.” She confirmed that Dennis Allan’s registration as a migration agent had lapsed and told me that other registered migration agents were now handling the firm’s work. My follow up calls and emails seeking comment from Allan himself did not elicit any response.

With two-and-a-half years of her ban on returning to Australia remaining, Pivato is finding it hard to live back in Italy. She feels stuck, as if her future is on hold. She misses her job, her friends, even the smells of Shepparton. “It is hard to live anywhere else after Australia,” she tells me. “Australia is just so organised and clean and fair.” Then she pauses and reconsiders. “Well, I thought it was fair, but I don’t think that anymore.”

If anyone has broken the rules, it is her migration agent. “All I have done, every single paper I have signed and money I have paid is legal,” she says. “But fine, the real criminal is me, and I have been punished.”

Despite her setbacks and disappointments, Pivato is determined to return. “It’s time to settle down for me,” she says. She has embarked on a master’s degree in Italian language teaching in the hope that this will give her a qualification that is in demand here. She is even planning to do her final six-month placement in New Zealand in order to be one step closer to returning when her ban expires.

“I can’t help it,” she says. “I miss Australia a lot. My life is there.” •

After this article was published in Inside Story, other victims of Dennis Allan’s poor migration advice got in touch with Peter Mares, and he followed up the issues for Radio National’s Law Report in July 2016. Seven clients of Dennis Allan, including Camilla Pivato, lodged complaints about the migration agent with OMARA, the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority. OMARA eventually upheld all seven complaints, finding that Dennis Allan had been “dishonest and reckless” and had “systematically” taken payments for “work that he did not do.” OMARA banned Dennis Allan from registering as a migration agent for five years, the stiffest penalty available.