Wage Theft in Silence: Why Migrant Workers Do Not Recover Their Unpaid Wages In Australia

On 29 October 2018, Bassina Farbenblum and Laurie Berg released the report Wage Theft in Silence: Why Migrant Workers Do Not Recover Their Unpaid Wages in Australia. This report reveals that the majority of migrant workers are paid well below minimum wage but very few ever take action to get the wages they are owed. This report, and the 2017 report Wage Theft in Australia, draw on responses to the National Temporary Migrant Work Survey from 4,322 participants across 107 nationalities of every region in the world, working in a range of jobs in all Australian states and territories.

Key findings include:

  • Among international students and backpackers who acknowledged they had been underpaid in Australia, the overwhelming majority suffered wage theft in silence. Fewer than one in ten took action to recover wages they were owed.

  • Of the small number who tried to recover wages, two in three recovered nothing. Fewer than one in six received the full amount they were owed.

  • Only 3% of underpaid participants contacted the Fair Work Ombudsman and well over half of them recovered none of their unpaid wages.

  • Though it is often assumed that most underpaid migrant workers are not interested or willing to take action to get the wages they are owed, in fact well over half of survey participants indicated that they were open to trying to recover their wages. This suggests that if resources are devoted to interventions that better enable migrant workers to report and address underpayment, many more would do so.

  • It is commonly assumed that migrant workers won’t report underpayment because they are unfamiliar with the different legal culture in Australia. In fact, Asian participants were the most open to trying to recover their wages.

  • Participants selected a range of rational reasons why they had not sought to address their underpayment: a quarter indicated fear of possible immigration consequences, close to a half reported that they did not know what to do, and many believed they would not be successful.

  • Many of these barriers can be practically addressed. There is an urgent need for a new or better process for wage recovery, better resourced support services, and a guarantee that migrants’ visas will not be jeopardised if they report wage theft.