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“Exploitation of migrant workers persists as a systematic practice”: A new report documents the widespread underpayment of migrant workers

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Migrant workers reported illegal underpayment, bullying and intimidation.

A new report argues exploitation of migrant workers in Australia is “systematic”.

The report by Unions NSW finds thousands of job ads in non-English languages offer illegally low wages. It also includes accounts from workers mistreated by employers.

Here’s what else it found.

Background

The report’s main focus is on temporary migrants working in Australia on skilled, student, or working holiday visas. Together, these visa holders make up about 3% of Australia’s workforce.

To capture jobs targeted at non-English-speaking migrants, this report examined thousands of ads in five languages: Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Spanish and Portuguese. It also surveyed a range of migrant workers about their experiences.

Illegal job ads

Across the top eight industries, 60% of non-English job ads offered a rate below the legal minimum wage or relevant award wage for the job.

The worst offenders were retail (85%) and cleaning (67%). The language with the most common illegal job ads was Chinese.

Mistreatment

The report included a survey of over 1,000 migrant workers on their experiences. 35% said they were offered lower pay because of their migrant visa, 27% said they were offered lower pay because of their nationality, and 14% said they were bullied because of their migrant status or nationality.

There were also accounts of unpaid wages, which the report described as “a widespread practice”. In one example, a migrant worker complained of being told to work 45 hours for free before they received any pay.

Visa conditions

20% of migrant workers said they were reluctant to complain about mistreatment because they were afraid they might get deported.

This is a particular concern for international students, whose visas can limit the number of hours a week they are allowed to work.

The report featured accounts of employers offering students more than the maximum hours at an illegally low rate of pay, then threatening to report them to the visa authorities if they complained.

Fruit picking work

Another common source of reported exploitation is in fruit picking jobs, which are often taken up by migrants on working holiday visas to enable them to extend their visas.

Fruit pickers are often paid per ‘piece’ they pick, but there is a legal guarantee that piece rate workers will not be paid below a certain amount.

The report found 43% of employers were not complying with this guarantee. Even among the employers who did comply, many threatened to fire employees if they didn’t pick enough fruit.

Recommendations

Unions NSW recommends abolishing hour limits on student visas and abolishing the farm work requirement for working holiday visas.

It also recommends steps to ensure visa holders who have been exploited at work cannot be deported for breaching their visa conditions, and calls for “a clear and reliable pathway to permanent residency.”

Government response

Immigration Minister Andrew Giles, who launched the report, said the exploitation of migrant workers had become “a business model” in many industries.

“We will act… we need to fix this by focusing on exploitative employers – not seeking to cancel people’s visas.”

Giles told TDA the Government would “actively consider” the recommendations in the report and was focused on “making it easier for people to speak out”.

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