A new study has found that backpackers, international students and migrant workers employed in the Australian hospitality, fruit-picking, and cleaning industries are being paid well below the minimum wage.
The study, conducted by law academics at the University of Technology Sydney and the University of New South Wales, saw shocking levels of underpayment. It found that 25% of international students, and one third of backpackers, are being paid less than $12 per hour – an amount half the legal minimum wage.
International student Varun Nyer spoke to the ABC about the exploitation he experienced whilst working in an Indian restaurant in Australia.
“On the roster I was being paid about $24 [an hour], and I was getting only 10 [hours] a week on that. When I had vacation, I was given more shifts – probably about 20 or 30 hours – but at $15,” he told ABC Local reporter Sarah Whyte.
My Nyer claims that he was underpaid around $1000-$1500 in wages across his period of employment.
The research also saw that 44% of migrant workers were paid cash-in-hand, and 50% were never or rarely provided a payslip.
Melbourne backpacker Max Whiter also recounted his shock at the rates he saw paid when he was travelling around the country. He told the ABC that some British workers were receiving as little as $35 for two or three hours’ work picking apples.
Over the past year, many large chains including 7-Eleven, Grill’d, and Bakers Delight, have all been caught out paying vulnerable workers well below the minimum wage, or requesting cashback from their wages.
Underpayment is “endemic”
Dr Laurie Berg, senior lecturer at UTS, explains that this is the first hard data to show that Australia has an invisible working underclass made up of international students and back packers – all being paid well below minimum wages. She calls the underpayment and exploitation of workers “endemic”.
Dr Berg also notes that the exploitation of these workers isn’t exclusive to any ethnic group – at least 1 in 5 American, British, Indian, Brazilian and Chinese visa workers all earn roughly half the minimum wage.
Exploited employees must speak out
Tim Lo Surdo is the director of advocacy group Democracy in Colour, who represents migrant workers in Australia. Lo Surdo and his advocacy group are actually pushing to criminalise wage theft.
He urges all migrant workers who have experienced exploitation to come forward, and report it to the Fair Work Ombudsman.
The Fair Work Commission is providing protection to such workers who make reports, in an effort to encourage all exploited workers to come forward. This year, Fair Work launched the ‘assurance protocol’ – a program which ensures migrant workers can report exploitation to the Fair Work Ombudsman without fear of getting their visa cancelled. Fair Work has also launched an app called ‘Record My Hours’. The app provides migrant workers a platform to record the hours they worked, so they will have proof of work if they need to debate their pay.
Legislation to protect vulnerable workers
The past month has seen the official rollout of the Vulnerable Workers Amendment to the Fair Work Act, aiming to protect these at-risk employees from underpayment and cash back schemes. The new legislation holds franchisors responsible for the compliance of their franchisees, and has seen fines for non-compliance spike to up to $630,000. These changes to the Fair Work Act are another means to discourage employers from ignoring breaches of workplaces laws within their companies. You can read more about these changes here.
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Image Credit: SBS; Sydney Criminal Lawyers