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Wage Theft in Silence: Why Migrant Workers Do Not Recover Their Unpaid Wages in Australia (2018)

— theme: Rights and protection of migrants
— country: Australia
— type: Reports

Temporary migrant workers comprise up to 11% of the Australian labour market.1 Underpayment within this workforce is both widespread and severe. In 2017, the report Wage Theft in Australia: Findings from the National Temporary Migrant Work Survey revealed that a substantial proportion of international students, backpackers and other temporary migrant workers were paid roughly half the legal minimum wage in their lowest paid job in Australia.2 The scale of un-remedied underpayment of migrant workers in Australia is vast: 7-Eleven’s internal wage repayment program alone repaid over $150 million in unpaid wages to its mostly international student workforce. Structural reforms are urgently required to address the drivers of exploitation. There is also a pressing need for remedial mechanisms that are accessible to individual migrant workers. Against a culture of impunity, predicated on employers’ assumptions that migrant workers will remain silent, these mechanisms are critical to detecting wage theft and holding employers accountable. Migrant workers’ ability to seek remedies for underpayment is also an indicator of the efficacy of Australia’s labour law regime and institutions. As this report and the Wage Theft in Australia report make clear, the number of reported complaints each year vastly underrepresents the depth and scope of underpayment of temporary migrant workers. To date, however, limited attention has been paid to the fundamental question of why migrant workers do not try to recover the wages they are owed. Previous research has mostly relied on public sources or observations by legal service providers, trade unions, the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) and others from whom only a small number of migrant workers have sought assistance. This study addresses a critical need for large scale first-hand data on the experiences and attitudes of the vast majority of underpaid temporary migrant workers who have endured wage theft in silence.

Bassina Farbenblum and Laurie Berg
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