Wage theft 'endemic' among exploited backpackers in Australia

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The study, by researchers at the University of New South Wales and the University of Technology Sydney, follows numerous reports of slave-like treatment of temporary workers in Australia, many of whom fear a backlash if they complain.

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. Some of the workers were subject to criminal exploitation. Some of the worst-paid jobs were cleaners, with 56 per cent receiving pay of less than A$15 an hour.

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 worldwide students, working holidaymakers and temporary migrants are being underpaid and exploited by employers.

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

Many overseas workers are paid in cash including two in three waiters kitchen-hands and food servers. Image Shutterstock
Many overseas workers are paid in cash including two in three waiters kitchen-hands and food servers. Image Shutterstock

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. Australia's legal minimum wage for casual workers is AUD 22.13 (USD 16.74), however the study showed that 30% of global students and backpackers were earning AUD 12 (USD 9.08) per hour or less.

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

The reason why most of these workers continue to do such jobs is because they usually believe that everyone else who has the same visa as them is also being underpaid or earning less than the minimum wage. The study showed 38% had their lowest paid job in cafes, restaurants and takeaway shops. Half of them never or rarely receive a payslip.

Professor Berg said the exploitation is not limited to the farming industry.

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"It has a flow-on effect", she said.

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

The study raises urgent concerns about the actions and resourcing required of government, business, unions and other service providers to address the scale of non-compliance, says Farbenblum.

"So there's no point them leaving the job that they are in because they see that there is very little chance of them getting a better job".

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

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.

But Mr Van Eesbeeck amounts others to a form of "modern slavery", he told SBS News he worked in extreme conditions while consistently being underpaid.

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