project: Migrant workers’ access to justice in Australia

Many temporary visa holders never recover underpaid wages from their employers in Australia. Some of them never try and others hit barriers when they do. This project is the first in-depth study of the ways in which temporary migrants can seek redress for unpaid wages (including through the Fair Work Ombudsman), the extent to which they bring claims in practice, and the outcomes of those claims. It unpacks the barriers that prevent the vast majority from asserting their rights, and how experiences may differ across nationality groups, industries, and visa categories. It draws on interviews with government agencies, legal service providers, advocates, unions, researchers and individual migrant workers, and numerous focus groups with temporary migrants, as well as the Temporary Migrant Work Survey 2017, a nationwide online survey of 4,322 temporary workers in Australia. The study also examines case data on the Fair Work Ombudsman’s handling of migrant worker complaints. Findings and recommendations from the study have been published in several academic articles and a public report (below).

wage theft in silence: why migrant workers do not recover their unpaid wages in australia

Wage Theft in Silence reveals that although the majority of migrant workers are paid well below minimum wage, very few ever take action to recover the wages they are owed. Most of those who tried to get their wages back were not successful. The report draws on responses of 4,322 international students, backpackers and other migrant workers who participated in the National Temporary Migrant Work Survey. It analyses the reasons why the overwhelming majority of participants had not sought to address their underpayment and makes recommendations for reform.



The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) has undertaken various education, compliance and deterrence initiatives directed to systemically improving conditions for migrant workers. Drawing on new empirical data, this study focuses on the role of the national labour inspectorate in delivering access to justice to underpaid migrant workers. It considers the extent to which individual migrant workers seek assistance from FWO to recover their personal unpaid wages, and the remedial outcomes of individual claims lodged with the agency. We illuminate structural factors contributing to migrants’ reluctance to engage with FWO, as well as factors contributing to low wage recovery rates for those who do contact FWO. We conclude that although these challenges are numerous and multi-layered, they are not all inevitable. Reforms should incorporate a new migrant-centred approach that recalibrates the risks and costs of seeking remedies against the likelihood of obtaining a just outcome. Findings from the study were published in Migrant workers' access to justice for exploitation in Australia: The role of the national Fair Work Ombudsman.


7-Eleven: Lessons from a business-led redress process

After media reports of widespread exploitation of 7-Eleven’s international student workforce across Australia, the company established a Wage Repayment Program. Paying out $150 million in total, this was the largest payout of unpaid wages in Australian history. Drawing on interviews with international students and a range of stakeholders across Australia, this project considers the barriers that prevent temporary migrants from accessing remedies for unpaid entitlements within existing legal and institutional frameworks in Australia. It identifies the factors that made the 7-Eleven Wage Program so unusually accessible and effective, and lessons for government institutions and future business-led redress processes. Findings from the study were published in the article Lessons from the 7-Eleven Wage Repayment Program for remedying migrant worker exploitation in Australia.

International students and the Fair Work Ombudsman

This project, commissioned by FWO in 2016, investigates why so few international students engage with FWO’s employment services despite widespread reporting of exploitation of international students in the Australian labour market. The report, published in 2017, was authored by Alex Reilly, Joanna Howe, Laurie Berg, Bassina Farbenblum, and George Tan.

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International Students at UNSW: Conditions at work and access to justice

Funded by the UNSW Grand Challenge on Migration, this project examines UNSW international students’ conditions at work and access to remedies for wage underpayment. It draws on data from approximately 750 UNSW international students obtained through the Temporary Migrant Work Survey 2017. The study explores the nature of work undertaken by UNSW international students, including the hours they work, the industry and location of their work, their rates of pay and how they found their job. In order to identify appropriate services and interventions to address exploitation of working international students, it examines the factors that correlate with underpaid work and the reasons why these underpaid international students may not have sought to recover unpaid wages.