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EXPLOITED? The workers earning half the legal minimum wage

RIPPED off, exploited and scared to speak out - the plight of Australia's backpackers has been laid bare in an explosive new report.

The bleak findings, released today by UNSW Sydney and UTS, show a third of backpackers and international students are paid half the legal minimum wage.

Its authors said the results show what many already suspected - that the problem of exploitation of workers from overseas was "endemic and severe".

"We've all heard stories of backpackers and international students being exploited, but we've never really known how far it goes," said Laurie Berg, a senior law lecturer at UTS.

"This survey shows us that we have a really large silent underclass of invisible temporary workers who are being paid well below the minimum wage."

The report draws on survey responses from 4322 temporary migrants from 107 countries in all states and territories.

David Stuart

Ms Berg, who co-authored the report with Bassina Farbenblum, a senior law lecturer at UNSW Sydney, said 15 per cent of fruit and vegetable pickers were being paid less than $5 an hour.

"We also received indicators of much more serious exploitation which indicate criminal forced labour, for example," she said. "And we have a substantial amount of people working in really exploitative conditions.

"For instance paying for a deposit upfront for their job, having their passport confiscated by an employer and having to pay cash back to their employer after receiving their wage. This is most prevalent in food services and in horticulture."

In 91 cases, respondents had their passports confiscated by employers and 173 respondents were required to pay upfront "deposits" of up to $1000 to secure a job in Australia.

The findings also show 112 respondents had been asked to pay money back to their employer in cash after receiving their wages.

"At some point, virtually everyone in this country has enjoyed food or services that have involved serious underpayment of international students or backpackers," Ms Berg added.

"It's in everything, from buying your morning coffee to refuelling your car, wage theft is endemic in these industries."

The study also dispels the myth that underpayment occurs simply because temporary migrants don't know the minimum wage, said Ms Farbenblum.

"We found the overwhelming majority of international students and backpackers are aware they are being underpaid.

"However, they believe few people on their visa expect to receive the legal minimum wage."

"We also know that they tend not to complain. They are afraid of losing their job or their visa and they don't want to draw any attention to themselves.

"They think illegally underpaid jobs are the only ones available to them in Australia."

The study found 86 per cent of international students and backpackers earning up to $15 per hour believe that many, most or all other people on their visa were paid less than the basic national minimum wage.

Ms Berg said wage theft was not confined to fruit and vegetable picking or convenience stores, nor is it confined to any nationalities.

"A fifth of every nationality was paid around half the legal minimum wage," she said. "For almost 40 per cent of students and backpackers, their lowest paid job was in a cafe, restaurant or takeaway."

The study also found 44 per cent of overseas workers are paid in cash, including two in three waiters, kitchen-hands and food servers. Half never or rarely receive a pay slip.

Ms Berg also believes the exploitation of workers from overseas has negative repercussions for Australian workers.

"It has a flow-on effect," she said. "It would clearly lower wages in those industries where Australians are also working.

"And the businesses who are involved in wage theft get an unfair advantage to businesses which are doing the right thing."

The study also raised urgent concerns about the actions and resourcing required of government, business, unions and other service providers to address the scale of noncompliance, according to Ms Farbenblum.

"It provides compelling evidence for expanded services that respond to temporary migrants'

experiences, as shared directly by them," she said.

Ms Berg said the government should target better enforcement.

"We have laws and temporary workers are covered by the Fair Work Act," she said.

"So, the government needs to look at better pathways to enforcing these rights and organisations which support workers need to be better resourced - so they can talk to backpackers in their own language and get the money that they're owed.

"Universities could also improve their services for international students as well."

A spokesman for the Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said the government had already taken steps to address migrant worker exploitation since the study took place in 2016.

He said it provided $20.1 million to the Fair Work Ombudsman, established a Migrant Workers Taskforce and passed the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Bill to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable workers.

"It is critical that all employers obey the law and pay the appropriate wage, regardless of the background of those employees," the spokesman said.

"Any workers concerned they are being underpaid are urged to speak to the Fair Work Ombudsman immediately."

Topics:  agriculture backpackers editors picks rural


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