Australia’s Exploited Underclass of Migrant Workers

A new centre with the mission of tackling exploitation of migrant workers points out underpayment as the biggest issue. The centre opened in Melbourne on August 29, 2018, with the mission of empowering migrant workers who are in Australia on temporary and permanent visas, The centre will provide them with training and educate them about their working rights.

Matt Kunkel, director of the Migrant Workers Centre, identified the most common issue faced by migrant workers as underpayment: “We’ve heard of people on wages as low as $11 or $8 [an hour] as a flat rate. In some cases, people don’t know they’re being ripped off. In other cases, they know but they don’t know what to do about it.”

Image Credit: Luke Henriques-Gomes

Other issues include workplace harassment, racial vilification and unfair dismissals. While the most common work sector was hospitality, other affected industries were cleaning, security, construction, transport and healthcare.

At present, staff at the centre provide native language assistance for workers from China, India and the Middle East. The diversity of the organisers themselves is expected to enhance the success of the centre. The initiative was launched by the Victorian Trades Hall Council, with a $2 million grant from the Victorian government.

Matt Kunkel emphasised that the centre was long overdue. The Fair Work ombudsman has retrieved almost $472,000 in owed wages from 243 businesses. Exploitation revelations at 7-eleven stores and increasing cases of underpayment in Melbourne’s hospitality industry underline the urgency for workers to be educated about their employment rights.

Large Silent Underclass of Migrant Workers

A recent landmark study about wage theft in Australia casts a spotlight on the “large silent underclass of migrant workers”. Approximately a third of temporary migrants, international students and backpackers surveyed earned $12 an hour or less – almost half the usual minimum wage.

The survey was conducted between September and December 2016 by senior law lecturers Bassina Farbenblum from the University of New South Wales, and Laurie Berg from the University of Technology Sydney. Results are based on 4,322 respondents, representing 107 nationalities working across industries in different states and territories.

Especially in food services, and fruit and vegetable picking, underpayment was widespread. Although an overwhelming three quarters of underpaid international students and backpackers are aware of the fact that their employers have paid illegally low wages, they remain in these jobs because they think it is the norm — they assume that everyone else with the same visa is underpaid as well.

The study also reports about working conditions amounting to criminal forced labour, such as passport confiscation, upfront deposit payments for a job and paying cash back to an employer after receiving salaries.

Culture of Impunity for Wage Theft in Australia

For every 100 underpaid migrant workers, only three complained to the Fair Work ombudsman. Study researchers claim the organisation is currently not equipped to provide sufficient assistance to individual workers. The findings outline the necessity for migrant workers support centres, as most workers do not reclaim underpaid wages because of their uncertainty about how to go about it. 

Source: UNSW, UTS, Wage Theft in Silence

Laurie Berg who co-authored the study criticised the fact that there are no mechanisms for migrant workers to defend their rights: “The system is broken […] It is rational for most migrant workers to stay silent. The effort and risks of taking action aren’t worth it, given the slim chance they’ll get their wages back,” she said.

“The scale of unclaimed wages is likely well over a billion dollars”, stated Bassina Farbenblum. “There is a culture of impunity for wage theft in Australia. Unscrupulous employers continue to exploit migrant workers because they know they won’t complain.”

Matt Kunkel concluded “What we’re really seeing is a wide range of people coming in from all industries and all over the place, and the thing that they have in common is that nobody taught them or told them what their rights at work were.”

Image Credit:  Juan Monino

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