Migrant workers are being targeted by job advertisements that offer illegal rates of pay

Almost 9-in-10 foreign-language job ads in NSW have been found to be offering migrant workers wages at illegal pay rates.

Migrant workers are facing exploitation through foreign-language job ads offering illegal pay rates.

Migrant workers are facing exploitation through foreign-language job ads offering illegal pay rates. Source: SBS/Migrant Worker Justice Initiative

Migrant workers are being targeted by foreign-language job ads that offer illegal pay rates, according to a new analysis.   

Unions NSW has conducted a survey of 3,000 job ads in languages such as Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Nepali, Spanish and Portuguese - finding 88 per cent paid below the minimum wage of the award rate. 

Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said there had been a troubling increase in attempted worker exploitation take place during the coronavirus pandemic.

"COVID has had a substantial effect on employers taking advantage of people who are desperate for money and desperate for jobs," he told reporters.

"They’ve used it as cover to exploit people further particularly those workers on visas ...  it has to be stomped out and it must be stopped today."      

The survey results showed the rate of job ads offering illegal pay rates has increased by more than 14 per cent during the pandemic.

Secretary of Unions NSW Mark Morey.
Source: AAP

Ninety-one per cent of job ads in Vietnamese were below minimum wage, while 88 per cent of Korean and Chinese ads failed to meet the mark.

The majority of Nepali (86 per cent), Portuguese (84 per cent) and Spanish (76 per cent) ads were below minimum award rates.

The lowest rate of pay advertised was $8 an hour for a nail technician, while the second-lowest rate was $10 an hour.

Call for stronger protection of migrant workers

Chinese national Leon - who asked for his last name to be withheld - knows the dangers of being exploited through underpayment by an employer. 

He said he felt pressured to take a job at a Chinese restaurant in Sydney last year paying just $13 an hour because of a lack of employment options. 

"I felt worried - I had no way to get away from it - I just arrived in Australia back then and couldn’t find a better job," he told SBS News. 

Leon said at the time he didn't know the minimum wage and his work right in Australia. 

"I wish there were laws to make restrictions to those employers so they do not exploit workers from China and other countries," he said. 

Leon says he was paid just $13 an hour at a Chinese restaurant.
Source: SBS News

 The report recommends changes to workplace laws including a prohibition on advertising jobs with pay rates below the minimum wage.

It also suggests scrapping the 20-hour-a-week work cap for international students to reduce pressure on people to take cash-in-hand jobs.

University student Iris Yao also said she was paid just $7 for her work at a Chinese restaurant after arriving in Australia as an international student. 

"Wage exploitation is a very severe problem," she told SBS News.

"It is very important for international students to know the minimum wage so they can protect themselves."


University student Iris Yao.
Source: SBS News

Coronavirus increases wage exploitation concerns

The Unions NSW's report suggests the fact temporary migrants were not eligible for JobSeeker and JobKeeper assistance schemes from the federal government likely contributed to the increase in attempted exploitation.  

"We have a crisis that’s been made worse by COVID-19 - without Jobseeker and Jobkeeper - migrant workers on visas in this country have been driven to take any job they can just to survive," Mr Morey said.

Many migrant workers have faced job losses this year because of their exposure to businesses worst-impacted by coronavirus shutdowns at the start of the pandemic.

The union also said the limitations of the Fair Work Ombudsman to conduct investigations during the COVID-19 pandemic had likely acted to intensify wage theft.  

In a statement, the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) confirmed investigations at workplaces had been temporarily suspended for part of 2020.

However, a spokesperson for the FWO said it continued to enforce workplace laws in an appropriate manner.

The spokesperson said matters involving migrant workers were a priority because of their vulnerability to exploitation. 

The Fair Work Ombudsman commenced 24 litigations involving visa holders in 2019-20 and recovered around $1.7 million for visa holders.

It also secured nearly $3 million in court-awarded penalties through litigation involving visa holders.

The federal government last week announced plans to make the most serious forms of wage theft a criminal offence, carrying up four years' jail.

Under the reforms, individuals could be fined $1.1 million while companies could cop penalties of up to $5.5 million.

Civil penalties for underpayments would also increase by 50 per cent. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter said the reforms include "significant new protections against exploitation" for all Australian workers, including migrants.

The spokesperson said they also take direct action to address the issue of non-compliant job advertisements. 

"By introducing a new prohibition on employers advertising pay rates that are below the minimum wage," the spokesperson said.

Labor's industrial relations spokesperson Tony Burke said too many workers continued to face exploitation.

"We have too many people in this country who are being underpaid," he told reporters.   

"We have too many people who are in a circumstance when they feel they have no rights."

The analysis was conducted from December 2019 to August this year with the majority of audited ads in cleaning, hospitality, retail, construction and hair. 

Job advertisements in the horticulture industry were not addressed in this report. 

Additional reporting AAP 

Published 14 December 2020 at 10:55am
By Tom Stayner