RLC in the Media: New legal service to target thousands of underpaid workers

The NSW government will back a new state-wide legal service that will target underpaid migrant workers as the federal government is urged to relax strict visa laws while it considers tougher penalties for the underpayment of wages.

Anna Patty reports for The Sydney Morning Herald

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman will launch the free legal service for migrants and temporary visa holders on Wednesday. The government will provide the service with $1.6 billion over three years to help almost 1000 workers each year.

“Every employee in Australia should be paid what they’re owed and this project will go a long way towards holding to account employers who exploit their workers,” Mr Speakman said.

The Redfern Legal Centre, which is among four community legal centres that will deliver the new migrant legal service, has also made a submission to the Morrison government inquiry into proposed new penalties for wage theft. The submission supports the introduction of tougher penalties, but calls on the government to address some of the underlying reasons for the exploitation of migrants.

These include the risk of migrant visa cancellation if workers enforce their legal rights to address underpayment.

Redfern Legal Centre’s employment law solicitor Sharmilla Bargon said her centre has seen visa holders forced to work more hours than the legal limit of 40 hours per fortnight.

“If the migrant worker complains, the employer threatens to ‘get them deported’. This creates a culture of silence around wage theft and other forms of exploitation,” she said.

Kateryna Shulha, 22, who arrived in Sydney from Ukraine four years ago, is among the student visa holders who have been underpaid.

She initially had no idea that the $12 per hour she was paid in one waitressing job and the $14 per hour at another was well below the legal minimum. When she asked for her pay slips, none were provided.

This year she went to the Redfern Legal Centre where she was told she should have been paid more than $22 per hour in both jobs and should have received pay slips. Had she received the advice at the time she was underpaid, she would have pursued a legal claim.

Unable to identify her employers or document the hours she worked, Ms Shulha has decided she does not want to invest the time and money she would need now to proceed with the claim.

Ms Shulha, who is studying law at the University of Sydney, is now volunteering for the Migrant Employment Legal Service. The service will pool the resources of the Redfern Legal Centre, the Inner City Legal Centre, Kingsford Legal Centre and Marrickville Legal Centre.

Read the full article here  (Sydney Morning Herald, 6 November 2019).