Wage Theft Rampant in Australia's Migrant Workforce, Study Shows

  • Backpackers and international students most vulnerable workers
  • Temporary workers comprise up to 11% of workforce: report

A worker collects freshly harvested bananas at a farm near Tully, Queensland, Australia.

Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Large swaths of Australia’s migrant workforce are being paid just over half the national minimum wage, according to a new study.

Some 32 percent of backpackers and a quarter of international students said they were paid just A$12 ($9.10) an hour or less, in a survey by the University of New South Wales conducted in the last four months of 2016. At the time, there were more than 900,000 temporary migrants with work rights in Australia, comprising up to 11 percent of the labor market, the report said.

Restaurants and cafes were most likely to underpay immigrants, and nearly half of participants said they’d been paid below A$15 an hour. In the most severe case, almost one in seven participants working in fruit and vegetable picking and on farms was paid A$5 an hour or less. Researchers also found that a small number of employers illegally confiscated passports, asked for upfront deposits or avoided issuing payslips.

“The findings invite scrutiny of how employers and businesses within supply chains profit from wage theft and gain advantage over others that pay workers in compliance with Australian labor law,” researchers said in the report.

At the time of the survey, the legal minimum wage for a casual worker was A$22.13 per hour, according to the report, with many temporary migrants entitled to be paid even more based on penalty rates and entitlements. Overall wage growth in Australia has been stuck near record lows even as unemployment continued to fall.

The survey vetted more than 4,000 participants through social media, unions, consulates and universities, and workers were given the chance to win Amazon gift cards. The researchers say their heavy reliance on social media for promotion and limited language support may have excluded some participants.

The self-reported responses weren’t checked for accuracy, with researchers saying there wasn’t an incentive strong enough to lie.

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