Students from China paid half Australia’s $22 minimum wage as study reveals ‘endemic theft’

Exploitation widespread across all 107 nationalities identified in the survey but Chinese international students, who make up the bulk of foreign students in Australia, were particularly vulnerable to being underpaid

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 12:34pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 10:42pm

International students and backpackers working in Australia are subjected to “systemic wage theft”, with about one-third paid half the minimum wage and those from Asia the worst-hit, a study found Tuesday.

There are more than 900,000 temporary migrants such as foreign students in Australia, making up about 11 per cent of the labour market.

Yet 30 per cent of the 4,322 temporary migrants surveyed said they were paid about half the legal minimum wage for casual workers of A$22.13 an hour (US$16.70) at the time of the survey in late 2016.

Almost half earned A$15 per hour or less, the “Wage Theft in Australia” report – covering 107 nationalities and conducted online in 13 languages – found.

“One of the really striking findings was that 86 per cent of international students and backpackers … perceive that everybody on their visa is being underpaid,” the study’s co-author Bassina Farbenblum of the University of New South Wales said.

“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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Employment Minister Michaelia Cash responded to the report by urging youths who felt they were underpaid to contact the government’s Fair Work Ombudsman.

“The government has made several important reforms to protect these workers since the survey was conducted,” she said in a statement. Reforms included more resources for the ombudsman to tackle exploitation cases.

The study, jointly conducted with the University of Technology Sydney, showed that “wage theft is endemic” and also “widespread across numerous industries”.

The report’s other author Laurie Berg said the study also showed conditions that might constitute criminal forced labour.

In 91 cases, respondents had their passports confiscated; 173 respondents were required to pay upfront “deposits” of up to $1,000 to secure a job; and 112 respondents had been asked to pay money back in cash after receiving their wages.

It was particularly prevalent in food services and “especially severe” in fruit-and-vegetable picking.

Last month, Malaysian journalist Saiful Hasam who went undercover to expose exploitation in Victoria’s fruit picking industry said workers were “brainwashed” with religion and trapped in debt to keep them on farms.

Fruit pickers, often working illegally, were lured to Australia with promises of high incomes, Hasam said. When they arrived, they were paid a pittance, kept in overcrowded homes with exorbitant rent and effectively trapped in debt bondage

Belgian Laurent Van Eesbeeck, 25, on a working holiday visa in Australia, told Fairfax Media he was paid as little as A$5 an hour to pick cherry tomatoes in Queensland state this year.

“I’ve had a couple of disappointments with Australian farms,” Van Eesbeeck said.

“For me it’s exploitation … I don’t want to be part of it.”

Other industries with poor track records were convenience stores, car washes and work in homes such as nannying and cleaning.

While at least one-fifth of those surveyed from every nationality experienced “extremely poor” wage rates of A$12 per hour or less, visitors from Asian countries were the most affected.

Around three-quarters of Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese participants earned A$17 per hour or less, compared with 35-41 per cent of American, Irish and British participants, the report said.

“Chinese workers are also more likely to be paid in cash,” it added.

Farbenblum called on the Australian government and businesses to act on the research, believed to be the most comprehensive study of temporary migrants’ pay and conditions, describing the level of non-compliance as reaching “epidemic proportions”.

Ged Kearney, the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, said: “Our broken laws not only facilitate the theft of wages, they have facilitated big businesses importing what amounts to a slave labour class of workers on temporary visas.

“Wage theft has to stop. Workers must have quick and easy access to justice and unions which can protect their rights.”

Agence France-Presse, The Guardian