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'I was bullied and underpaid': One in three backpackers paid half minimum wage

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One in three backpackers and international students are paid half the legal minimum wage amid widespread 'wage theft' that extends beyond fruit picking and farm work, a study shows.

A new report has found one in three international students and backpackers in Australia are being paid about half the legal minimum wage.

It described the job exploitation of this group of workers in Australia as 'endemic and severe'.

Belgian backpacker Laurent Van Eesbeeck has spent four months working as a fruit picker on eight different farms across Queensland.

Some of his experiences were pleasant, he said.

But Mr Van Eesbeeck amounts others to a form of "modern slavery", telling SBS News he worked in extreme conditions while consistently being underpaid.

"I remember on a cherry tomato farm, I was completely bullied by the supervisor and I was completely underpaid," he said.

"I think my first job, I got $10 for two or three hours of work. When I went picking strawberries, I think I averaged $60-a-day before tax for eight hours of hard work under the sun."

Exploitation rife

Laurent's experience is far from isolated, according to new report Wage Theft in Australia that reveals the extent of the exploitation of temporary migrants.

The joint study from the University of New South Wales and University of Technology, Sydney surveyed more than 4000 temporary migrants from 107 countries - with 2392 of those international students and 1440 backpackers.

Report co-author and UTS Law professor Laurie Berg told SBS News it was the first study of its kind in Australia.

"To this point, we haven't known how far the exploitation goes," she said.

"So our survey presents the first hard data that shows that we have a hidden underclass of temporary migrants in this country.

"And they are made up of international students and backpackers who are earning well under the minimum wage."

The national minimum wage is $18.29 per hour
The national minimum wage is $18.29 per hour
Credit: (Fair Work Commission)

The national minimum wage is $18.29 per hour but the study found a third of backpackers earn $12 per hour or less, while a quarter of all international students earn $12 or less.

It found almost half of backpackers make $15 or less in their lowest paid job, and it's a similar statistic for international students, at 43 per cent.

Professor Berg says the exploitation is not limited to the farming industry.

"Underpayment was widespread across 12 different industries. It was particularly prevalent in food services, so restaurants cafes take away stores," she told SBS News.

"Two in five of our participants said that their lowest paid job was in food services and underpayment was particularly severe in horticulture, fruit and vegetable picking, farm work, where almost a third of people who worked in fruit and vegetable picking earned $10 an hour or less."

Certain nationalities more vulnerable

The report found some nationalities are more of a target, with workers from Asian countries including China, Taiwan and Vietnam receive lower wage rates than those from North America, Ireland and the UK.

Chinese workers were more likely to be paid in cash.

According to the authors, a common myth is that underpayment occurs simply because temporary migrants don't know the minimum wage.

But their research found that the overwhelming majority of temporary migrants are aware they are being underpaid, but believe few people on their visa expect to receive the legal minimum wage.

Backpacker Laurent says he was aware, but like others, got on with the job in order to meet the 88 days of farm work required to extend his visa.

"You have like 50 adds and for every add there were 100 replies from backpackers, so it's pretty competitive to get farm work just because every backpacker who wants to do their 88 days are looking at these websites," he says.

Criminal forced labour? 

With so many desperate to find a job in the industry, it becomes easier for employers to exploit workers.

The study found In 91 cases, respondents had had their passports confiscated by employers.

173 were required to pay upfront “deposits” of up to $1000 to secure a job in Australia and 112  had been asked to pay money back to their employer in cash after receiving their wages.

It  reveals 44 per cent of overseas workers are paid in cash, including two in three waiters, kitchen-hands and food servers and half never or rarely receive a payslip

Professor Berg says the study highlights how international students and backpackers are encountering conditions that may constitute criminal forced labour.

"Paying temporary migrants under the minimum wage breaches their employment rights, everyone's covered by the fair work act but I think underpaying temporary migrants also drives down wages for all of the other worker in that industry.

"And also businesses who engage in wage theft are getting an unfair, competitive advantage over other employers who are complying with Australian labour law."

Calls for stronger laws

Professor Berg believes the survey provides compelling evidence for government, businesses and others to address the scale of non-compliance in this area. 

"[I] think the government needs to focus on high risk industries such as food services and horticulture where the underpayment were particularly severe.

"Organisations supporting workers also need top be better resourced, including the Fair Work Ombudsman to have more face to face programs where they can actually speak to these backpackers and international students in their language and help them confront their employers and recover their unpaid wages."

She wants to see stronger laws put in place that hold all parties in the supply chain accountable.

"We have had laws that have created further accountability in franchises but they don't apply to businesses like supermarkets who get cheap fruit and vegetables from their suppliers who engage in wage theft."

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