A large-scale study of temporary migrant workers in Australia has found very few understand what they need to do to recover unpaid wages, while more than a quarter don’t take action out of fear of losing their visas.
The study by the University of New South Wales Sydney (UNSW) and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) surveyed 4,322 respondents from 107 countries, of which 2,250 acknowledged they had been underpaid while working on a temporary visa in Australia.
Respondents worked in a range of industries, but around 9% were involved in horticulture as vegetable or fruit pickers, packers or farm workers.
“Among participants whose lowest paid job was in fruit or vegetable picking or farm work, at least 87% had not tried to recover wages,” said co-authors Bassina Farbenblum of UNSW and Laurie Berg of UTS, both senior law lecturers.
“The lowest pay rates were in horticulture and farm work.”
The survey found fewer than one in 10 migrant workers took action to recover unpaid wages.
“Our study confirms that Australia has a large, silent underclass of underpaid migrant workers,” Farbenblum said.
“The scale of unclaimed wages is likely well over a billion dollars.”
Migrant workers comprise up to 11% of the Australian labor market. The authors’ previous report found most international students and backpackers are underpaid, with one in three earning about half the legal minimum wage.
The study reported that for every 100 underpaid migrant workers, only three went to the Fair Work Ombudsman. Of those, well over half recovered nothing.
Among the 194 participants who had tried to recover wages through any channel, two in three recovered nothing (67%). Fewer than one in six (16%) received the full amount they were owed.
Two in five underpaid participants (42%) reported that they had not tried to recover unpaid wages because they did not know what to do.
This was not only attributable to unfamiliarity with Western legal culture or difficulties speaking English: it was the top reason given by participants of six of the largest seven nationalities, including the United Kingdom.
The authors conclude that for most migrant workers it is neither possible nor rational to try to claim their unpaid wages through the forums that currently exist.
“The system is broken. It is rational for most migrant workers to stay silent,” Berg said.
“The effort and risks of taking action aren’t worth it, given the slim chance they’ll get their wages back.”
Queensland horticulture peak body Growcom condemned the mistreatment of migrant workers, with chief advocate Rachel McKenzie claiming the industry had an underbelly that hurt everyone, including growers who do the right thing and are undercut by those producers who underpay workers.
“Wage theft in horticulture is real and it is not acceptable, however we do need to remember that the figures quoted in this report are based on a self-selecting survey so are unlikely to be fully representative of the workers in this sector,” Mackenzie said.
“That said, even one case of wage theft is too many,” she said.
“Growcom has long been a champion of treating workers fairly in the horticulture industry and continues to make significant steps in assisting growers to meet and demonstrate compliance with workplace legislation.”
This month Growcom started a pilot of the national Fair Farms certification training, which aims to give growers the tools they need to treat their workers fairly as well as restoring confidence to customers and the wider community.
“The Fair Farms Initiative gives industry an opportunity to establish a practical market recognition scheme that enables farm businesses to demonstrate that their employment practices comply with Australian laws and industry standards,” Mackenzie said.
“Growcom has worked closely with state and national horticulture industry groups, retailers and supply chain stakeholders to ensure the initiative meets the needs of all industry members.”
The Fair Farms certification scheme will offer:
- A code of practice that clearly outline what farm businesses must do to comply with employment laws and industry standards
- An online self-assessment against the code
- Training options
- Third party auditing and certification, if required.
“There is nothing we and our growers want more than to have a reliable workforce and for that workforce to be ethically and fairly employed,” Mackenzie said.
“There are enough challenges around securing a workforce for our growers, particularly during peak times, without the added weight of stories which reflect poorly on our industry.”