RLC in the Media: Unclaimed wages likely to top one billion dollars

A landmark study has found endemic levels of underpayment among international students, backpackers and other migrant workers in Australia, with fewer than one in ten taking action to recover unpaid wages.

Anna Patty reports for The Sydney Morning Herald

The Wage Theft in SIlence report, co-authored by academics from UNSW and UTS, found that most temporary migrant workers, who represent 11 per cent of the Australian labour market, have little confidence in trying to claim unpaid wages.

Bassina Farbenblum, a senior law lecturer at UNSW who co-authored the study said the findings confirmed that Australia has a large silent underclass of migrant workers.

"The scale of unclaimed wages is likely well over a billion dollars," she said. "There is a culture of impunity for wage theft in Australia. Unscrupulous employers continue to exploit migrant workers because they know they won't complain."

The study found that 46 per cent of underpaid survey participants would not even try to recover unpaid wages. Reasons included the fear of job loss, fear of consequences regarding their temporary migrant visa or citizenship and pessimism about the outcome.

Redfern Legal Centre Employment Solicitor Sharmilla Bargon said underpayment for migrant workers is endemic in New South Wales.

"The report, Wage Theft in Silence, confirms many of our observations from providing free legal advice and representation to international students and backpackers at RLC," Sharmilla Bargon said.

“We frequently see workers paid as little as $12 per hour. That’s almost half the minimum wage."

Jay's story

Jay*, an international student who worked in a Sydney retail shop for six years, spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonimity. He said he was paid $11 per hour for the first two years.

Jay said he was required to work seven nights a week and studied during the day. In 2013 he was paid $12 per hour and promoted to a management role. More than four years later he was sacked after asking for a pay rise for his staff.

Redfern Legal Centre calculated that Jay was underpaid $270,000 taking into account his underpaid base rate of pay, penalty rates for night work, annual leave, sick leave, long service leave and superannuation. Redfern Legal Centre sent the business a letter of demand requesting the payment of this money but it wrote back and accused the worker of stealing from the shop. The worker said the allegations were baseless.

The Redfern Legal Centre prepared an application to the Federal Circuit Court to claim the unpaid employment entitlements and to also seek penalties against the employer but the worker was too scared to take his action to court because he feared his citizenship could be revoked and that the employer could tarnish his reputation in the community.

* Name has been changed

Read the full article: Unclaimed wages likely to top one billion dollars (Anna Patty, The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October 2018)

Download the report: Wage Theft in Silence: Why Migrant Workers Do Not Recover Their Unpaid Wages In Australia (Bassina Farbenblum and Laurie Berg, 28 October 2018)