Exploitation of international students and backpackers in Australia is endemic and severe according to research

For almost 40 per cent of students and backpackers, their lowest paid job was in a cafe, restaurant or takeaway.
For almost 40 per cent of students and backpackers, their lowest paid job was in a cafe, restaurant or takeaway.

Workplace exploitation of international students and backpackers in Australia is endemic and severe, a landmark study by UNSW Sydney and UTS has found.

One in three international students and backpackers are paid about half the legal minimum wage, according to the reportWage Theft in Australia, the most comprehensive study of temporary migrants’ work and conditions in Australia.

The report draws on survey responses from 4,322 temporary migrants from 107 countries in all states and territories. It was authored by Laurie Berg, a senior law lecturer at UTS, and Bassina Farbenblum, a senior law lecturer at UNSW Sydney.

The study attempts to dispel the myth that underpayment occurs simply because temporary migrants don’t know the minimum wage, says Bassina Farbenblum.

“We found the overwhelming majority of international students and backpackers are aware they are being underpaid. However, they believe few people on their visa expect to receive the legal minimum wage,” Farbenblum says.

The study found 86 per cent of international students and backpackers earning up to $15 per hour believe that many, most or all other people on their visa are paid less than the basic national minimum wage. 

Co-author Laurie Berg says wage theft is not confined to fruit and vegetable picking or convenience stores, nor is it confined to any nationalities.

“A fifth of every nationality was paid around half the legal minimum wage. For almost 40 per cent of students and backpackers, their lowest paid job was in a cafe, restaurant or takeaway.”

Berg says the study also shows international students and backpackers encounter conditions that may constitute criminal forced labour. 

In 91 cases, respondents had had their passports confiscated by employers; 173 respondents were required to pay upfront “deposits” of up to $1000 to secure a job in Australia; and 112 respondents had been asked to pay money back to their employer in cash after receiving their wages.

The study also found 44 per cent of overseas workers are paid in cash, including two in three waiters, kitchen-hands and food servers. Half never or rarely receive a payslip.

The study raises urgent concerns about the actions and resourcing required of government, business, unions and other service providers to address the scale of non-compliance, says Farbenblum.

“It provides compelling evidence for expanded services that respond to temporary migrants’ experiences, as shared directly by them.”