Wage Theft in Silence indicates 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 try to get their wages back are not successful.

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 the 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.


Wage Theft in Australia indicates that Australia has a large underclass of migrant workers, primarily made up of international students and backpackers, who are paid well below the minimum wage in at least 12 main industries.

Key findings include:

  • Almost a third (30%) of international students and backpackers earned $12 per hour or less. This is about half the minimum wage for a casual employee in many of the jobs in which temporary migrants work.

  • Underpayment was widespread across numerous industries but was especially common in food services, and especially severe in fruit and vegetable picking

  • Severe underpayment was experienced by every major nationality of backpackers and international students in this country - at least one in five Americans, British, Indians, Brazilians, and Chinese earned roughly half the minimum wage.

  • At least three quarters of underpaid international students and backpackers know that they’re being paid less than the minimum wage. One reason they stay in these jobs paying illegally low wages is that the overwhelming majority believe that everyone else on their visa is earning less than the minimum wage too. 

  • A substantial number also work in conditions that could amount to criminal forced labour, including being required to pay cash back to their employer after receiving their wages, having their passport confiscated by their employer, or paying an upfront 'deposit' for their job


The National Temporary Migrant Work Survey is the most comprehensive study of wage theft and working conditions among international students, backpackers and other temporary migrants in Australia.  Among the 4,322 respondents, 2,392 were international students, 1,440 were Working Holiday Makers (backpackers), 301 were skilled 457-visa holders, and the remainder were on other temporary visas when they worked in Australia.

The survey asked participants about the wages and other conditions in their lowest paid job in Australia, as well as a range of questions about their experiences, perceptions and knowledge of their rights at work. The survey’s findings are intended to improve the effectiveness of government institutions, policies, services and advocacy on behalf of migrant workers by ensuring they are responsive to workers’ experiences and attitudes.