Migrant wage theft demands new protections

Unions NSW

A firewall between the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Department of Home Affairs is needed to protect migrant workers from deportation when they report exploitation, as new data reaffirms rife underpayment across Australia.

More than 7,000 ads written primarily in foreign languages across over 10 industries were reviewed. Over 1,000 migrant workers also shared their experiences when working or applying for work in Australia.

The nation-wide audit highlights some improvements in the horticulture sector, with more ads offering hourly wages since the Fair Work Commission modified the horticulture award this year, imposing a minimum wage guarantee for piece rate workers.

But there’s still evidence of non-compliance, with 43% of the employers not paying a minimum wage guarantee for piece rate workers or only offering to pay it for a short period.

Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said it’s disturbing that employers were still targeting workers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

“It’s alarming that employers unashamedly exploit and underpay vulnerable migrant workers, all while Australia experiences lagging migration rates and deals with claims of labour shortages.

“Our audit exposes this underbelly and demonstrates the need for the Commonwealth to bolster its efforts to stamp out bad employer behaviour while empowering workers to enforce their rights.

“It’s encouraging to see the union-led movement to change the horticulture award is making a positive impact on wages and employer conduct. But it’s clear it’s not enough. The visa system is broken and needs reform to strengthen the protection of migrant workers. Right now, too many workers remain shackled to their employers due to the uncertainty of their visa status.”

Unions NSW wants there to be a firewall between the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Department of Home Affairs so vulnerable workers are empowered to act against unscrupulous employers.

It also wants a new substantive visa to allow workers with outstanding claims for workplace entitlements to remain in the country with working rights until their claim has been settled.

Other visa restrictions that intensify exploitation should also be lifted, and all visa types should provide a clear and reliable pathway to permanent residency.

Key findings:


  • More than 40% of employers weren’t paying a minimum wage guarantee for piece rate workers, or only offered to pay it for a short period

  • Almost half of employers paying a minimum wage guarantee to piece rate workers threatened to sack their employees if they didn’t reach a picking target

  • More than a quarter of employers who weren’t guaranteeing minimum wage payment said they pay a lower rate to employees who don’t have a visa or have an expired visa

Hospitality, cleaning, retail and other industries:

  • About 60% of ads in the top eight industries audited that provided a rate of pay were below the minimum wage stipulated by the relevant modern award

  • The highest percentage of jobs advertised below the minimum award wage were in retail at 84.5%, followed by cleaning at 67%, transport at 48%, building and construction at 47.5%, hospitality at 45.5%, and hair and beauty at 42.5%

  • More than 60% of job ads in Chinese were below the minimum award wage, as were almost half of Spanish ads and more than a quarter of Portuguese

Migrant worker experiences based on survey:

  • More than 40% of student visa holders were paid or offered a lower salary because of their visa type

  • Over a third of workers were paid or offered a lower salary because of their visa type and more than a quarter were paid or offered a lower wage because of their nationality

  • One in five workers on employer sponsored visas were asked by their employers to pay for their sponsorship. The same number of workers also felt afraid to report underpayment or other workplace law breaches

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