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Study claims migrant workers stay silent on wage theft

Less than 10 per cent of international students and backpackers in Australia recover unpaid wages, even when they are aware they are being underpaid, a new study has found.

According to the UNSW Sydney and UTS report Wage Theft in Silence, fewer than one in 10 migrant workers took action to recover unpaid wages even though most know they are being underpaid.

The report draws on the first large-scale national survey of temporary migrant workers, with 4322 respondents from 107 countries working across all Australian states and territories.

It is authored by senior law lecturer at UNSW, Bassina Farbenblum and Laurie Berg, a senior law lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

“Our study confirms that Australia has a large, silent underclass of underpaid migrant workers,” said Farbenblum.

“The scale of unclaimed wages is likely well over a billion dollars.”

Migrant workers comprise up to 11 per cent of the Australian labour market. The authors’ previous report found most international students and backpackers are underpaid, with one in three earning about half the legal minimum wage.

The study reported that for every 100 underpaid migrant workers, only three went to the Fair Work Ombudsman. Of those, more than half recovered nothing.

The authors conclude that for most migrant workers it is neither possible nor rational to try to claim their unpaid wages through the forums that currently exist.

“The system is broken,” said Berg. “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.”

“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,” said Farbenblum.

The study dispels the popular assumption that few migrant workers would consider coming forward. In fact, though few had actually taken action, a majority (54 per cent) were open to trying to claim unpaid wages.

The study identified the key barriers that prevented them from coming forward.

“The findings are deeply troubling but give cause for optimism, because they reveal a path forward,” said Berg.

“The study indicates that some of the most significant barriers to wage recovery can be practically addressed.”

The most cited barriers were not knowing what to do and concerns about the amount of effort involved. However, more than a quarter said they would not speak up because of fears of losing their visa.

Migrant workers’ reluctance to come forward was not explained by poor English or foreign culture. In fact, Asian migrants were most willing to come forward.

Cleaning Accountability Framework (CAF) CEO Poonam Datar has welcomed the release of the study.

“Migrant workers make up a significant proportion of the cleaning sector workforce – a sector which has seen a number of cases of exploitation brought to public attention,” Datar told INCLEAN.

CAF is an independent, multi-stakeholder association including property managers, cleaning companies, the Fair Work Ombudsman and United Voice.

The standard sets out the obligations of cleaning contractors, but also the responsibilities of owners and their facility managers in procuring and monitoring cleaning arrangements.

“The report recognises more needs to be done to address wage theft among migrant workers; a recognition that is shared by CAF and its members. Together, we are developing a labour rights supply chain certification scheme to assess and encourage compliance from the outset, thereby reducing the risk of cases of underpayment.

“Critical to this process is the worker voice – the report highlights that the vast majority of migrant workers won’t take action to recover unpaid wages, even though they know they are being underpaid. The CAF encourages and empowers cleaners to be part of assessing and maintaining compliance on a site, and to speak up where there is an issue so this can be addressed sooner rather than later.”

The report concludes that if processes and support services are improved, and immigration safeguards strengthened, more migrant workers would report and seek redress for wage theft in the future.

The authors observe that if Australia is to position itself as the destination of choice for international students and backpackers, reforms must be urgently implemented to prevent wage theft and enable migrant workers to report and recover unpaid wages.

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