New service provides free legal advice for migrant workers facing wage theft

The Migrant Employment Legal Service will provide free legal advice, representation and community legal education for migrant workers facing workplace exploitation.

International students and other short-term migrants facing exploitation at work can now access free legal assistance through a $1.6 million project launched in New South Wales today.

The Migrant Employment Legal Service (MELS) offers free legal advice, representation and community legal education for migrants who are victims of wage theft or have been unfairly dismissed.

The MELS is a joint project of the Inner City Legal Centre, Redfern Legal Centre, Kingsford Legal Centre and Marrickville Legal Centre, which currently provide free legal advice to residents in surrounding suburbs.

With $1.6 million in government funding delivered over three years, the MELS will expand that support to temporary migrants statewide.

Redfern Legal Centre employment law solicitor Sharmilla Bargon said the new service is crucial, given that migrant workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace.

"Unscrupulous businesses exploit migrants by offering work that is well below the legal rate of pay," Bargon said.

"This pressures migrants workers into breaching their visa conditions. We have seen certain visa holders forced into working over their legally-allowed limit of 40 hours per fortnight, just to survive."

"If the migrant worker complains, the employer threatens to 'get them deported'. This creates a culture of silence around wage theft and other forms of exploitation."

International student Kateryna said she was paid $12 and $14 an hour at her first two jobs in Sydney, both small cafes.

"When I was paid I was paid cash in hand," she said. "There was no written agreement. I wasn't keeping track of the hours as I probably should have, but neither was my employer."

Kateryna is an international student who says she was underpaid at work.
Kateryna is an international student who experienced underpayment at work.
SBS

"I didn't have somebody else to tell me that's kind of a bit dodgy, or it's a bit wrong, because I'm surrounded by people who are in exactly the same situation."

The Feed has recently spoken to other international students who received similar wages of $12 to $14 an hour while working in hospitality in Sydney. The national minimum wage is $19.49 per hour, not including weekend penalty rates.

Attorney General Mark Speakman helped launch the MELS today and said it filled a critical gap in legal services.

"The extent of wage theft in Australia is quite surprising," Speakman said.

"It's not just in small businesses or fruit picking, we've seen it in large businesses as well."

Speakman estimated that around 1000 people will be able to access legal assistance through the MELS annually.

"There are plenty of people in the general population who have legal problems, but it's particularly acute for those on temporary visas who face visa issues, language issues, cultural issues, and don't know where to go to get free legal advice," he said.

"Every employee in Australia should be paid what they're owed and this project will go a long way towards holding to account employers who exploit their workers."

Kateryna now volunteers at the Redfern Legal Centre, and said that if she had been aware of her rights and the support available to her, she would have done things differently.

"I wish everybody who is in this situation would try it. Ask questions, and don't be afraid to seek help."

The Migrant Employee Legal Service is now operational. You can follow the MELS on Facebook, or call 02 8002 1203 to book a free appointment with a lawyer.

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