Migrant workers are the worst paid and ‘unlikely to complain about stolen wages’ – ABC Rural


German backpacker Bruno (not his real name) picked zucchinis and other vegetables with a few friends on an organic farm in New South Wales earlier this year.

wages theft fact box

Key findings:

  • 30 per cent of participants earned $12 per hour or less
  • 25 per cent of international students earned $12 per hour or less, while 43 per cent earned $15 or less
  • 32 per cent of working holiday visa workers earned $12 per hour or less; 46 per cent earned $15 per hour or less
  • Fruit and vegetable pickers, packers or farm workers earnt much less than workers in construction and industry, but more than those in hospitality and convenience stores/petrol stations.

He said they were “ripped off”.

“Through the phone they told us it was hourly and … you could get between $600 and a grand [a week],” he said.

“We just didn’t know what we were getting into.”

It was a very different story when they arrived.

In the end Bruno and his friends made about $5 an hour over the five weeks.

“It was getting paid per bucket … but when there’s nothing to pick, it’s a bit of a rip off, especially when … they take the [cost of] accommodation off your wage.”

Migrant workers in agriculture are among the worst paid in the country and most are suffering in silence.

A study of 4,300 temporary migrant workers by the University of NSW and the University of Technology Sydney entitled Wage theft in silence found that a third were working for $12 an hour or less.

Report co-author Bassina Farbenbulm said some of the worst paid were farm workers and fruit pickers, with 15 per cent earning less than $5 per hour.

Three per cent of the survey group had their passports illegally confiscated by their employer or accommodation provider.

Five per cent said they had to pay a “deposit” to get the job.

Despite the problems fewer than 10 per cent of international students and backpackers in Australia try to recover unpaid wages, even when most know they are being scammed.

Growers call for action now

Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers chairman Allan Mahoney has campaigned on the issue for eight years.

He said his frustration grew daily as he witnessed poor hiring practices on social media.

“Third parties [are] actively putting on jobs for hire under the award rate and nowhere close to the award rate,” Mr Mahoney said.

“And you have 150 people on social media begging for the job.”

He often alerted people to those scams but said that had not stopped the flow because workers would do almost anything to secure a second-year visa.

Mr Mahoney said not enough was being done to stamp out the exploitation.

“What we need is enforcement,” he said.

“We need to set examples of the criminal element that is still within the industry.

“We’ve got Fair Work, the Australian Federal Police force, the state police force, and yet none of these crimes seem to be acted upon.”

Mr Mahoney believed it was not just a problem in his region.

“In the Lockyer Valley at the moment they’re having a massive problem, and Fair Work is half an hour away, yet nothing is being done,” he said.

Regulation of labour hire companies

Ms Farbenbulm believed one solution was to make it easier for workers to report problems and recover their unpaid wages, either by establishing a new process or improving the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) system.

She wanted to see a dedicated multilingual team to support workers, expanded powers for FWO to compel employers to deal with complaints, and amendments to the Fair Entitlements Guarantee to protect migrant workers when their employer goes into liquidation.

She also thought labour hire companies should be licensed across the country.

Dodgy labour hire companies were prolific in agriculture and the same operators disappeared at the first sign of an investigation, only to reappear later under a different name.

Mr Mahoney believed growers needed to take more responsibility as well, especially when it came to pay rates.

“If a deal’s too good to be true, obviously it is,” he said.

“Naivete can’t be used [as an excuse].

Call for changes to the Fair Work Ombudsman

The Fair Work Ombudsman is the main port of call for workers making complaints, but its record is patchy.

Ms Farbenbulm said the requirements were too complex for many migrant workers and the ombudsman was focussed on big cases that could act as a warning, rather than responding to all complaints.

In the study, 60 per cent of working holidaymakers who contacted the FWO did not recover any pay.

The FWO declined an interview with the ABC but said it was considering the Wage theft in silence report.

It maintained that helping migrant workers with concerns about their wages or entitlements was a priority and that it was focussed on heightening migrant workers’ awareness of their rights.

Meanwhile, backpacker Bruno believed it was a widespread problem in Europe as well as Australia, and migrant workers needed to take more responsibility to ensure they did not get sucked into offers that were below award wage.

“But I don’t know how a country as great as Australia … lets people do what they’re doing,” he said.



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