Underpayment Of International Students And Backpackers Commonplace In Australia

A recent study by the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative (MWJI) confirms that the exploitation of temporary migrants working in Australia by their employers is widespread, endemic and severe.

It confirms that recent cases—for example, 7-Eleven’s systematic underpayment of young migrant workers at its network of 620 convenience store franchises across Australia—are not aberrations but are the norm.

The vast majority of international students, working holiday makers (WHMs, euphemistically called backpackers) and other temporary migrants confront wage theft, i.e., employers stealing a portion of their wages by undercutting minimum entitlements under Australian labour law. A significant minority work under slave-like conditions.

The report, Wage Theft in AustraliaFindings of the National Temporary Migrant Work Survey, is based on the responses of 4,322 temporary migrants from 107 countries. It was conducted online between September and December last year and asked those surveyed about their lowest paid job.

At the time of the survey, the legal minimum wage for a casual worker was $22.13 per hour. Many temporary migrants were entitled to higher rates based on penalty rates and entitlements under relevant industry awards. For example, a 21-year-old fast food employee should have earned at least $24.30 per hour and $29.16 on Saturdays. For the majority of temporary migrants, however, the minimum wage is a dead letter.

About 65 percent of international students and 59 percent of backpackers earned $17 per hour or less, significantly below the minimum wage. There were no figures on what proportion actually received their legal entitlement.

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  • mrjjbs

    The worst paid are the Chinese and the Thais who work almost exclusively in food outlets. I’ve heard as low as $7 per hour for Chinese workers. Most Thais get $10-12, but chefs get more. Popular Chinese and Thai restaurants in Thaitown, Chinatown & Koreatown seriously underpay their staff, but there’s plenty of this going on in the suburbs as well. East Asians also get paid very poorly as do Vietnamese who work in nail salons. You can go into any food court in Sydney’s CBD and find outlets that are underpaying their staff. There are even restaurants in upmarket areas, e.g. Sydney’s ‘Rocks’ area, that ask a job-seeker to do a ‘trial’ (unpaid and therefore illegal) shift. They never call them back, simply ask another to come in the next night. Unwitting slave labour. Underpayment and illegal non-payment is happening every day in hundreds of food outlets in Sydney and it seems the government really doesn’t give a rat’s arse. So much for the rule of law.

    Those underpaying their staff are also not paying tax. Or super. As a result, law-abiding businesses which pay the minimum wage, etc. are competitively disadvantaged and the government loses income. It’s a race to the bottom and is helping to destroy one of the world’s best social systems, a fruit of the hundreds of years of political struggle in Europe to put in place legal and social protections for the poor. In the last ten or so years in Australia, things have slid backwards at a horrible rate. When I came here thirty years ago, there was no way anyone would accept less than minimum wage. Now, there are thousands upon thousands being ripped off by their bosses in violation of the laws of the land.

    Most of those doing the underpaying are recent immigrants, some of the one to two hundred thousand a year added to the Australian population so big business can sell more toilet paper and so banks and the big end of town can benefit from the pressure on housing prices and mortgages and the huge profits to developers, who are big political donors. It looks good for the economy’s KPIs. But some of the criminals have been big corporations. Slavery is good for profits.

    Worsening the issue is the government’s restriction on working hours for foreign students: 20 hours a week. Students are scared to say anything because most of them are working well beyond that, some for extra cash, most to simply survive. Imagine being a Thai student and paying $140-180 week to share a room with 1-3 other people and have to fork out $200 a week to an English school and pay the ridiculous rates charged to international students on Sydney’s public transport plus basic life expenses and all on $10-15 hour while attending school 4+ hours a day.

  • mrjjbs

    In Sydney, the worst
    paid are the Chinese and the Thais who mostly work in food
    outlets. I’ve heard as low as $7 per hour for Chinese workers. Most
    Thais get $10-12, but chefs get more. Well-known Chinese and Thai
    restaurants in Thaitown, Chinatown
    & Koreatown seriously underpay their staff, as do other outlets,
    but there’s plenty of this going on in the suburbs as well. East Asians
    also get paid very poorly as do Vietnamese who work in nail salons. It
    seems it’s the Asian students who fare worst, normally
    under Asian bosses.

    You can go into any food court in Sydney’s CBD and find outlets that are
    underpaying their staff. There are even restaurants in upmarket areas,
    e.g. Sydney’s ‘Rocks’ area, that ask a job-seeker to do a ‘trial’
    (unpaid and therefore illegal) shift. They never
    call them back, no matter how good a job they did, simply ask another
    to come in the following night. Unwitting slave labour. Underpayment and
    illegal non-payment is happening every day in hundreds of food outlets
    in Sydney and it seems the government really
    doesn’t give a rat’s arse. I’ve seen no sign of any political will in
    this area despite repeated stories in Sydney’s main paper. So much for
    the rule of law.

    Those underpaying their staff are also not paying tax. Or super, which
    foreign workers are entitled to claim when returning to their countries.
    As a result, law-abiding businesses which pay the minimum wage,super,
    etc. are competitively disadvantaged, sometimes
    to the point of closing down, and the government loses income. It’s a
    race to the bottom and it’s helping to destroy one of the world’s best
    social systems, a fruit of the hundreds of years of political struggle
    it took throughout Western European history
    to put in place legal and social protections for the poor. In the last
    ten or so years in Australia, things have slid backwards at a horrible
    rate. Thousands upon thousands being ripped off by their bosses in
    violation of the laws of the land untold hours
    a day, every day of the week. If these thefts were instead being
    perpetrated on the public, they’d be up in arms about it and demanding
    draconian prison sentences. Instead, they just go and eat their cheap
    lunches, unaware they’re sitting at a crime scene.

    Most of those doing the underpaying are recent immigrants, some of the
    one to two hundred thousand a year added to the Australian population
    (28% of which was born overseas), so big business can sell more toilet
    paper and so banks and the big end of town can
    benefit from the pressure on housing prices and mortgages and huge
    profits to developers, who make up a big chunk of political donors. And
    it looks good for the economy’s KPIs. As mentioned above, some of the
    crims ripping off workers have been big corporations. Slavery is
    good for profits.

    Worsening the issue is the government’s restriction on working hours for
    foreign students: 20 hours a week. Go beyond that and you could be
    deported. Students are scared to say anything because many of them are
    working considerably longer hours, some for extra
    cash, most to simply survive. Imagine being a Thai student and paying
    $140-180 week to share a room with 1-3 other people and have to fork out
    $200 a week to an English school, perhaps pay the ridiculous rates
    charged to international students on Sydney’s
    public transport, plus basic life expenses and all on $10-15 hour while
    attending school 4+ hours a day.

    While I’m at it, I’ll mention a related issue: the destruction of
    Australian tertiary education standards and institutions such as TAFE.
    It’s the same mentality behind it all. Some Aussies get mad at the
    immigrants, and there’s some justification when they
    feel they’re violating the law and unwilling to live according to
    Western values and in accordance with Australian law, but their anger
    would be far better directed at the politicians and bureaucrats who,
    whether by intent or inaction, do nothing to stop this
    crap.

    –An English teacher who has been in daily contact with foreign students for over 10 years.