Foreign students and temps face 'endemic wage theft' in Australia

Cabramatta station in Sydney. Australia took in more than 900,000 temporary arrivals with work rights last year. There have been questions about the abuse of these workers, who often take low-paid casual jobs.
Cabramatta station in Sydney. Australia took in more than 900,000 temporary arrivals with work rights last year. There have been questions about the abuse of these workers, who often take low-paid casual jobs.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Study exposes extent to which temporary migrants, working visitors are exploited

A landmark study has revealed the extent of "wage theft" and mistreatment of foreign students and holidaymakers in Australia, including many visitors who believed gross underpayment was simply part of the deal.

The study released yesterday by researchers at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and University of New South Wales (UNSW) surveyed 4,322 migrants and exposed the extent to which visiting international students, working holidaymakers and temporary migrants are being underpaid and exploited by employers.

This included revelations that 67 per cent of foreign students had been paid less than the minimum wage for a casual worker of about A$22 per hour (S$22.50) - and that 25 per cent of students were paid less than A$12. Overall, 62 per cent of migrant workers had received wages of less than A$18 an hour.

"The study confirms that wage theft is endemic among international students, backpackers and other temporary migrants in Australia. For a substantial number of temporary migrants, it is also severe," the researchers said.

Australia last year took in over 900,000 temporary arrivals with work rights - making up to 11 per cent of the workforce. These numbers have been bolstered by surging numbers of international students, which are at record levels and delivered about A$28.6 billion to the economy last year.

But there have been growing questions about the abuse of these workers, who often take low-paid casual jobs such as kitchen hands and waiters, farmhands, cleaners and factory workers. Many are unaware of their rights or are concerned that lodging a complaint could affect their visa status.

The study, by Dr Laurie Berg from UTS and Ms Bassina Farbenblum from UNSW, followed multiple media reports of slave-like conditions for some visitors and tried to address the lack of data about wage theft, especially among international students and holidaymakers. Almost half of those surveyed - 47 per cent - were from countries in Asia, including 15 per cent from China (Hong Kong included), 8 per cent from South Korea, 6 per cent each from the United Kingdom and Germany, and an unspecified number from Singapore. In total, citizens of 107 countries took part.

The results showed that workers from non-English speaking countries were among nationalities who tended to receive lowest wages, with 81 per cent of Chinese receiving less than A$17 an hour.

The majority of students (73 per cent) knew they were being underpaid but believed this was "endemic" and they were powerless to challenge their pay. Some of the worst-paid jobs were cleaners, with 56 per cent receiving pay of less than A$15 an hour. In addition, 52 per cent of farm workers and 49 per cent of restaurant workers received pay of less than A$15 an hour. Some of the workers were subject to criminal exploitation. About 3 per cent had their passports confiscated by their employers.

The researchers said the "bleak" revelations showed the authorities need to urgently oversee workplace conditions, noting that the large-scale exploitation of students may be driving down wages across the country.

Australian trade union leader Ged Kearney called for urgent action, saying the study showed that big businesses were importing "a slave labour class of workers".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2017, with the headline 'Foreign students and temps face 'endemic wage theft' in Australia'. Print Edition | Subscribe