“Until international students are protected… Australia can never position itself as a world leader”
The Wage Theft in Silence report, which surveyed almost 4,500 migrant workers including international students and backpackers, found that while most students were aware of underpayment and open to attempting to recover stolen wages, fewer than one in 10 did so.
By visa held, international students were least likely to attempt to recover wages, with only 8% of respondents indicating they took action, compared to 9% of working holidaymakers and 11% of those on the now defunct 457 visa.
“People often assume that underpaid migrant workers won’t come forward no matter what, and our survey paints a different picture on that front,” said the report’s co-author Laurie Berg.
“Even though it’s true that very few actually did take action, most of the participants of our survey who knew that they were underpaid were open to trying to claim unpaid wages.”
While students were least likely to take action, half indicated they were open to attempting to recover their wages, and Berg, who is also a senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney’s faculty of law, told The PIE News this was “cause for optimism” and suggested a need for significant institutional and process changes.
The findings also dispell misconceptions around why migrant workers don’t report wage theft and showed a level of pessimism over the likelihood of success; 35% said they felt attempting to recover their wages would be too much work.
“You can understand why… they might decide not to take any action”
According to Berg, the cost/benefit analysis for many migrant workers tended towards doing nothing, with the survey also finding of the 10% who reported wage theft, only one in three recovered their wages and half of those the full amount.
“On the one hand, they face the prospect of making a lot of effort and perhaps some cost of coming forward and also risking their visa, which is a big issue for many,” she said.
“Then on the other side of the ledger, the chances of success are so small that, in fact, you can understand why… they might decide not to take any action.”
The report, which follows on from and uses the same data as 2017’s Wage Theft in Australia, also found a quarter of respondents were concerned the Department of Home Affairs would revoke their visa if they reported exploitation.
While a subsequent arrangement between the Fair Work Ombudsman and DHA has ceased automatic deportation of exploited migrant workers, Berg said anecdotal evidence suggested the change has had limited impact on those perceptions.
“[The agreement] doesn’t guarantee students or any workers who come to the FWO that their details will not be revealed to DHA,” she said.
“That does not appear to be as strong an assurance as may be required to assuage the concerns of international students.”
“It needs to be very, very clear; otherwise the students are never going to report”
Council of International Students Australia national president Bijay Sapkota reiterated students’ concerns over their visa, saying that the use of words such as “may” and “can” in reporting policy created uncertainties.
“It needs to be very, very clear; otherwise the students are never going to report,” he said.
“For students to report, it’s very important to do a wider social media campaign, and not just do a media release in the Australian media but also the wider community.”
Speaking with The PIE, Sapkota said there was a “loophole” in the lack of regulations over education agents, and suggested stricter regulations for students coming to Australia, floating the possibility of a pre-departure entrance exam.
“A lot of students come to Australia with an intention of paying their own fees and paying their expenses. When you look at that situation, it looks very obvious… it’s impossible for them to work just 20-hours a week and [cover costs],” he said.
“Until and unless international students are protected, have a good life and they are treated with the rule of law of Australia, Australia can never position itself as a world leader in the wider-sector.”