Migrant worker wage theft report a wake-up call for governments and employers

29 October 2018
Migrant worker wage theft remains a major problem in Australia that requires urgent action according to Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, with a damning report released today identifying significant barriers for workers seeking to recover unpaid wages.

The report Wage Theft in Silence released today by the UNSW and UTS has identified that fewer than one in 10 migrant workers took action to recover underpaid wages, noting that for every 100 underpaid migrant workers only three went to the Fair Work Ombudsman and well over half recovered nothing.

Maurice Blackburn Employment Law Principal Giri Sivaraman said the report also identified that many workers knew they were being underpaid and wanted to do something about this, but felt they couldn’t because of the difficulties and risks faced to recover unpaid wages.

“Today’s report paints a damning picture of the systemic wage theft being experienced by too many migrant workers in Australia,” Mr Sivaraman said.

“Of significant concern in this report is that a number of migrant workers indicated they knew they were being underpaid and wanted to act on this, but did not come forward because the barriers to seek help were too great, including potential implications for their visas if they did speak out.

“Until we address these issues Australia will continue to have a migrant worker exploitation crisis – there has been a lot of talk over many years now about these issues and it is well past time for action,” he said.

Mr Sivaraman said state and federal governments must take note of the recommendations outlined in today’s report, including calls to provide a greater level of legal support to migrant workers who have been underpaid as well as adoption of wider regulatory reforms.

“Today’s report calls for a legislated firewall to be established between the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Department of Home Affairs to prevent the two agencies sharing information about potential visa contraventions when migrant workers seek help for wage theft,” Mr Sivaraman said.

“We support this call, in many of the cases we have run for migrant workers this has been a key concern where we have had to seek visa amnesties so workers can come forward without their visas being impacted and it is evident that reforms to ensure greater protections in these circumstances is crucial.

"The report also recommends that states should establish greater accountability by introducing criminal offences for employers that knowingly and repeatedly engage in wage theft.

“We support this and have reiterated the need for similar measures as part of the current parliamentary inquiry into wage theft currently underway in Queensland, where we have called for a dedicated Wage Theft Act with penalties of up to $1 million and/or 10 years imprisonment for reckless and intentional conduct that sees employers exposing workers to wage theft,” he said.

“Migration has been the bedrock of Australia’s prosperity. It is a tragedy that the prosperity of our country is being exposed as built off the back of exploitation of vulnerable migrants,” he said.

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