When working holiday maker Rodolphe Lafont realised he was being paid as little as $5 an hour picking fruit on a Victorian farm, he did what many in his position do: not much.
“I am a backpacker and I don’t want to take a lawyer or something like that,” the Frenchman told SBS News. “It is difficult and takes a long time.”
By contrast, enduring weeks of poor living conditions on one NSW farm was enough to drive German backpacker Jannik Lasschlott to seek out the help of the Fair Work Ombudsman.
But it cost him his job.
“They fired the next day, like, seven people,” he said. “The people he knew that we went to Fair Work – me included.”
Mr Lafont and Mr Lasschlott, now staying in the same Sydney backpacker strip of Kings Cross, sum up the working reality for many temporary migrants in Australia: most don’t bother chasing up underpaid wages, while those who do often find it is not worth the trouble.
That is also the conclusion of a new report describing a “broken system” that has allowed unscrupulous employers to exploit backpackers, international students and other temporary migrants, who have few real avenues to recover their lost wages.
“It’s clear that Australia now has a large, silent underclass of hundreds of thousands of underpaid migrant workers,” said University of NSW senior law lecturer and report co-author Bassina Farbenblum.
“The scale of unclaimed wages is likely well over a billion dollars.”
The “Wage Theft in Silence” report, released on Monday, draws on data from the first large-scale national survey of temporary visa holders, with more than 4,300 respondents hailing from 107 countries. It is a cohort that represents up to 11 per cent of the Australian labour market.
The report found fewer than one in 10 temporary migrant workers took action to recover missing wages – even if they knew they were being underpaid.
Fewer than one in 10 temporary migrant workers took action to recover missing wages.
And significantly, most temporary workers were being underpaid, according to previous research by Ms Farbenblum and her co-author Laurie Berg, a senior law lecturer from the University of Technology, Sydney.
The first tranche of data from the survey, released last year, revealed almost half of the respondents earned $15 an hour or less; a third earned $12 an hour or less, with horticulture and farm work identified as the lowest-paid sector. The legal minimum wage is $18.93 an hour.
“Probably 80 per cent have bad experience in the farm,” hostel manager Peter Manziere told SBS News, adding everyone who passes through his hostel “has a story”.
“Someone pay them $5 an hour, someone pay them per basket instead of per time,” he said. “Always complain about what they are doing.”
But the latest findings released on Monday highlighted that seeking redress was, for many, a futile exercise.
For every 100 that were underpaid, the report said only three workers went to the Fair Work Ombudsman – the principal avenue for migrant workers who need help with wage underpayment. Of these, more than half recovered nothing.
Key barriers to taking action in the first place included lack of knowledge of how to do so (42 per cent), the effort involved (35 per cent), fear of immigration consequences (25 per cent) and fear of job loss (22 per cent).
“The system is broken,” Ms Berg said. “It is rational for most migrant workers to stay silent. The effort and risks of taking action aren’t worth it, given the slim chance they’ll get their wages back.”
The system is broken … It is rational for most migrant workers to stay silent.
– Laurie Berg, Law lecturer
Redfern Legal Centre’s employment solicitor Sharmilla Bargon said international students they dealt with often weighed up whether recovering wages was worth jeopardising a $300,000 degree.
“They have to balance that against pursuing a $5,000 underpayment claim,” said Ms Bargon, who added in some cases employers threatened to report complainants to the Department of Home Affairs for breaching their visa conditions.
“So for some people, it’s a very simple answer and they don’t take action, and it’s understandable.”
While the research confirms many such assumptions, it also upends others.
Poor English was not a barrier for as many migrants coming forward as might have been expected, the report found. Nor did cultural difference appear to be a major factor, with Asian temporary migrants the most willing to try and recover wages.
The report said structural reforms were “urgently required” to address the main drivers of exploitation and a “culture of impunity” based on assumptions that underpaid workers would remain silent.
Improving support services for temporary migrant workers and strengthening immigration safeguards counted among the report’s recommendations, including setting up a firewall to stop the Fair Work Ombudsman sharing information about visa breaches with Home Affairs.
A spokeswoman said the ombudsman was considering the report.
“It is a priority for the Fair Work Ombudsman to assist any migrant workers with concerns about their wages or entitlements,” she said.
Do you know more? If you would like to share your story with SBS News, email: email@example.com