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Wage theft and migrant workers – a new report about ripping off the vulnerable

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Disturbing findings have been made in a report co-authored by researchers from from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) with the support of the Migrant Workers Justice Initiative (MWJI).

Background to the Report

The report is the result of investigations based on responses to the National Temporary Migrant Work Survey. According to the MWJI website is the survey is “the most comprehensive study of wage theft and working conditions among international students, backpackers and other temporary migrants in Australia.”

Participants included:

  • 2,392 were international students,
  • 1,440 were Working Holiday Makers (backpackers),
  • 301 were skilled 457-visa holders,

with the remainder on other temporary visas when they worked in Australia. The 4,322 respondents came from 107 nationalities and worked in a variety of job in all states and territories.

When a snapshot of one of Melbourne’s most iconic dining strips and a large-scale survey of temporary visa holders both show rampant wage theft, you know things have gone badly wrong”
Sally McManus, ACTU Secretary

Report Findings

Key findings include:

  • The overwhelming majority of underpaid students and backpackers suffered wage theft in silence. Fewer than one in ten took action to recover wages.
  • Of those who did act to recoup what they were owed, only one third received some payment with fewer than one in six receiving the full amount of what they were owed.
  • Only 3% of underpaid participants contacted the Fair Work Ombudsman and well over half of them recovered none of their unpaid wages.
  • Well over half of survey participants indicated that they were open to trying to recover their wages.

Report Recommendations

Some of the recommendations for redressing this inequity include the establishment of a new body that is separate to the Fair Work Ombudsman, where more dedicated services can ensure that wage theft is eradicated. The report recommends the establishment of a “specialised forum. . . which provides well-resourced individualised assistance and delivers remedies swiftly, with presumptions in the worker’s favour if they have no payslips or if there is a widespread pattern of fraudulent recording of wages or hours worked”.

Language is a barrier but surprisingly many were familiar with how to claim wages but fearful of immigration consequences. Almost 50% of those surveyed reported that they did not know what to do, and many believed they would not be successful. According to the authors of the report, there is “an urgent need for a new or better process for wage recovery, better resourced support services, and a guarantee that migrants’ visas will not be jeopardised if they report wage theft.

Union Response

The ACTU released a media statement about this report as well as the recent discovery that businesses in the iconic Melbourne laneway Degraves Street were underpaying staff in wage theft of a difference kind.

Secretary Sally McManus stated, “When a snapshot of one of Melbourne’s most iconic dining strips and a large-scale survey of temporary visa holders both show rampant wage theft, you know things have gone badly wrong.

“We need to make it easy for people who’ve had wages stolen to get their money back, and we need to put workers representatives back on the wage theft beat and give them the power to inspect the books to make sure bosses aren’t stealing.

“Those employing people on temporary visas should be made to register and everyone who comes to Australia to work should receive information on their rights and access to representation in their native language.”



Read the full report here